This painting of a horse, lying dead while its grieving rider kneels beside it, is by Rosa Bonheur, one of the most celebrated artists of 19th-century France. Bonheur's paintings of horses are usually celebrations of animal vitality. This one is unusual for its sombre mood. The brushstrokes are much more fluid and sketchy than her other animal studies. Moreover, it is exceptional in the artist's work as an example of Orientalism - the widespread interest of 19th-century European artists in the exoticism of the Near East. Bonheur is not known to have visited North Africa, and the desert setting is presumably either imagined or was drawn from an alternative source.
The Art Historian James Thompson has suggested that the painting could symbolise either Bonheur's grief over the recent death of her father Raymond or her long-term sorrow over the premature death of her mother, Sophie. Bonheur’s father certainly exerted a huge influence over her life-style, political views and her approach to art. Raymond Bonheur (1796-1849) was a social-reformist painter and art teacher. He played an active part in the Saint-Simonian movement, which aimed to create a new social order based on the idea of the ‘collective good’. Artists were encouraged to use their individual creativity to convince people to accept social reforms. The movement fought for the equality of women and questioned traditional gender roles. Indeed, it was her father’s strong belief in equal access to art education for women that enabled Rosa to learn the craft of painting. Raymond taught all of his children to draw, paint and cast from an early age, training them to serve as his apprentices.
However, Rosa never forgot the extreme sacrifice her mother made to raise her children and allow Raymond to pursue his reformist ideals. Sophie was a gifted musician and piano teacher. She died in 1833 at the age of 36, from illness aggravated by the ‘exhaustion’ of almost single-handedly raising four young children. Bonheur thought of her as her ‘guardian angel’. However, she was also determined to learn from her mother’s demise and forge a different path. She determined never to marry a man, so that she could retain control of her own life and affairs. Instead she lived for the vast majority of her adult life in committed relationships with women.