Rosa Bonheur (born Marie-Rosalie Bonheur; 16 March 1822 – 25 May 1899), was a French artist, mostly a painter of animals (animalière) but also a sculptor, in a realist style. Her paintings include Ploughing in the Nivernais, first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1848, and now at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and The Horse Fair (in French: Le marché aux chevaux), which was exhibited at the Salon of 1853 (finished in 1855) and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. Bonheur was widely considered to be the most famous female painter of the nineteenth century.
Bonheur was born on 16 March 1822 in Bordeaux, Gironde, the oldest child in a family of artists. Her mother was Sophie Bonheur (born Marquis), a piano teacher; she died when Rosa was eleven. Her father was Oscar-Raymond Bonheur, a landscape and portrait painter who encouraged his daughter’s artistic talents. Though of Jewish origin, the Bonheur family adhered to Saint-Simonianism, a Christian-socialist sect that promoted the education of women alongside men. Bonheur’s siblings included the animal painters Auguste Bonheur and Juliette Bonheur, as well as the animal sculptor Isidore Jules Bonheur. Francis Galton used the Bonheurs as an example of “Hereditary Genius” in his 1869 essay of the same title.
Bonheur moved to Paris in 1828 at the age of six with her mother and siblings, after her father had gone ahead of them to establish a residence and income there. By family accounts, she had been an unruly child and had a difficult time learning to read, though she would sketch for hours at a time with pencil and paper before she learned to talk. Her mother taught her to read and write by asking her to choose and draw a different animal for each letter of the alphabet.
The artist credited her love of drawing animals to these reading lessons with her mother.
At school she was often disruptive, and was expelled numerous times. After a failed apprenticeship with a seamstress at the age of twelve, her father undertook her training as a painter. Her father allowed her to pursue her interest in painting animals by bringing live animals to the family’s studio for studying.
Following the traditional art school curriculum of the period, Bonheur began her training by copying images from drawing books and by sketching plaster models. As her training progressed, she made studies of domesticated animals, including horses, sheep, cows, goats, rabbits and other animals in the pastures around the perimeter of Paris, the open fields of Villiers near Levallois-Perret, and the still-wild Bois de Boulogne. At fourteen, she began to copy paintings at the Louvre. Among her favorite painters were Nicolas Poussin and Peter Paul Rubens, but she also copied the paintings of Paulus Potter, Frans Pourbus the Younger, Louis Léopold Robert, Salvatore Rosa and Karel Dujardin.
She studied animal anatomy and osteology in the abattoirs of Paris and dissected animals at the École nationale vétérinaire d’Alfort, the National Veterinary Institute in Paris. There she prepared detailed studies that she later used as references for her paintings and sculptures. During this period, she befriended the father-and-son comparative anatomists and zoologists, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.
A French government commission led to Bonheur’s first great success, Ploughing in the Nivernais, exhibited in 1849 and now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Her most famous work, the monumental The Horse Fair, was completed in 1855 and measured eight feet high by sixteen feet wide. It depicts the horse market held in Paris, on the tree-lined boulevard de l’Hôpital, near the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, which is visible in the painting’s background. There is a reduced version in the National Gallery in London.
This work led to international fame and recognition; that same year she traveled to Scotland and met Queen Victoria en route, who admired Bonheur’s work. In Scotland, she completed sketches for later works including Highland Shepherd, completed in 1859, and A Scottish Raid, completed in 1860. These pieces depicted a way of life in the Scottish highlands that had disappeared a century earlier, and they had enormous appeal to Victorian sensibilities.
Bonheur exhibited her work at the Palace of Fine Arts and The Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.
Though she was more popular in England than in her native France, she was decorated with the French Legion of Honour by the Empress Eugénie in 1865, and was promoted to Officer of the order in 1894. She was the first female artist to be given this award.
Bonheur was represented by the art dealer Ernest Gambart (1814–1902). In 1855 he brought Bonheur to the United Kingdom, and he purchased the reproduction rights to her work. Many engravings of Bonheur’s work were created from reproductions by Charles George Lewis (1808–1880), one of the finest engravers of the day.
In 1859 her success enabled her to move to the Château de By near Fontainebleau, not far from Paris, where she lived for the rest of her life. The house is now a museum dedicated to her.