This painting of sheep grazing is by Rosa Bonheur, one of the most celebrated artists of 19th-century France. She specialised in painting animals in a naturalistic style. Bonheur achieved international recognition with her five-metre wide picture ‘The Horse Fair’, which was exhibited in Liverpool in February 1856. Now hailed as a feminist, Bonheur helped pave the way for women artists across the globe to take up work as respected professionals. Before her international success, female participation in art tended to be viewed as a pastime, or even an ‘indulgence’, rather than an occupation.
Through her unconventionally masculine dress and her close emotional relationships with women, Bonheur consistently defied the social conventions of her day. She lived for much of her adult life in committed relationships with women. It is clear from her surviving letters that she understood her relationships with her consecutive, long-term companions (Nathalie Micas and Anna Klumpke) to be a form of matrimony. She referred to both partners as her ‘wife’, to all intensive purposes living with them in a conventional and devoted ‘marriage’. Although Bonheur could not have defined herself in this way, as there was no clearly defined notion of lesbian identity at the time, she is often cited as ‘the first lesbian artist’. The known photographs and paintings of Bonheur in male dress are thought to have contributed to the development of an androgynous, lesbian visual identity in the early 20th century.
At first glance, paintings such as ‘Sheep and Lambs’ appear to reflect little of Bonheur's unconventional life-style or her feminist or progressive views. Indeed, the conventional style of Bonheur's paintings and their focus on animals rather than social concerns meant that they were easily accepted by the establishment and also had broad appeal to a middle-class audience. However, her animals can also be seen as icons of freedom. The sheep in this painting are shown in a wild, unfarmed landscape. They are depicted as self-sufficient and free from the shackles of human control and subservience. This consistent representation of 'free' animals has been interpreted as signalling Bonheur's own desire for greater liberty and freedom. Her letters consistently spoke of her longing to be free from the shackles of male domination and, in particular, from the restrictive clothing and social norms that prevented her behaving how she wished, and loving who she did, in public.