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Sheep and Lambs

Rosa Bonheur, 1866

WAG 183

About this object

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.

Object specifics

  • Other title(s)
    Moutons et Agneaux; Mouton et Agneaux
  • Artist(s)
    Rosa Bonheur (French, born:16 March,1822, died:25 May,1899)
  • Date
  • Materials
    Panel; Oil
  • Measurements
  • Physical description
    Study of a group of three sheep and a lamb in a rugged green landscape, with hills in the distance.
  • Related people
    Agnew's Gallery (Previous owner); Rosa Bonheur (Artist/maker); Emma Georgina Holt (Previous owner); Goupil & Cie (Previous owner); George Holt (Previous owner); Knoedler (Previous owner); Marquis de Santurce (Previous owner); Messrs Murrieta (Previous owner); François Petit (Previous owner); West (Previous owner)
  • Other number(s)
    WAG Inventory Number: 183
  • Credit line
    Bequeathed to the Walker Art Gallery by Emma Holt in 1944
  • Location
    Item not currently on display
  • Collection
    From the Walker Art Gallery collections


Previous owners

  • Emma Holt

    Owned from: 1896
    How acquired: by descent from her father
    Owned until: 1945
    Disposal method: Bequethed to the Walker Art Gallery
  • George Holt

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: purchased from Agnew's, London, for £600 0s 0d
    Owned until: 1896
    Disposal method: by descent to his daughter
  • Agnew's Gallery

    Owned from: 1892-05-14
    How acquired: purchased from Christie's 14 May 1892, lot 31, purchased by Agnew's, £514 10s 0d
    Owned until: ?-
    Disposal method: Sold to George Holt, £600 0s 0d
  • Messrs Murrieta

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: Unknown or unrecorded
    Owned until: 1892-05-14
    Disposal method: Sold throughChristie's 14 May 1892, lot 31, purchased by Agnew's, £514 10s 0d
  • West

    Owned from: 1891-04-25
    How acquired: Purchased from Christie's 25 April 1891, lot 99, for £672 0s 0d
    Owned until: ?-
    Disposal method: Unknown or unrecorded
  • Marquis de Santurce

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: Unknown or unrecorded
    Owned until: 1891-04-25
    Disposal method: Sold through Christie's 25 April 1891, lot 99, for £672 0s 0d
  • Knoedler

    Owned from: 1868-12-31
    How acquired: Purchased from Goupil & Cie on 31 December 1868
    Owned until: ?-
    Disposal method: Unknown or unrecorded
  • Goupil & Cie

    Owned from: 1867-08-10
    How acquired: Purchased from François Petit on 10 August 1867
    Owned until: 1868-12-31
    Disposal method: Sold to Knoedler, New York, 31 December 1868
  • François Petit

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: Unknown or unrecorded
    Owned until: 1867-08-10
    Disposal method: Sold to Goupil & Cie, 10 August 1867


Item inscriptions

  • Inscription text: ROSA BONHEAR 1866 (lower left corner)
    Inscription method: Signature
    Inscription note:
    Inscription location: Lower left
Object view = Fine Art
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