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Rosa Bonheur

French painter (1822-1899) known particularly for her paintings of animals.

Rosa Bonheur was one of the most celebrated artists of nineteenth-century France. She specialised in painting animals in a realistic but naturalistic style. She achieved international recognition with her five-metre wide picture ‘The Horse Fair’. This painting proved so popular that it toured Europe and America several times, selling thousands of printed reproductions. It was exhibited in Liverpool in February 1856. Now hailed as a feminist; she helped pave the way for women artists across the globe to take up work as respected professionals. Before Bonheur’s international success, female participation in art tended to be viewed as a pastime, or even an ‘indulgence’.

Rosa Bonheur’s father, Raymond (born in 1796, died in 1849), was a social-reformist painter and art teacher. He played an active part in the Saint-Simonist movement, which, aimed to create a new social order with improved living conditions for all. The movement fought for the equality of women and questioned traditional gender roles. With this upbringing, it was more natural and feasible for Bonheur to challenge the conventional gender roles of her day and establish herself as a proactive and independent artist. The financial and professional status Bonheur gained as an artist also enabled her to challenge the dominant female image of her time by taking control of her own affairs. Bonheur was famed for her conventionally male style of dress and her adoption of masculine character traits. Her working attire consisted of a loose smock, men’s velvet trousers and heavy boots that she claimed protected her feet from the dangerous environment in which she painted. Wearing men’s clothes in public was illegal for women at the time; however, Bonheur obtained a written permit from the Prefect of Police to cross-dress in 1857, justifying her attire in relation to her work as an artist. Bonheur often visited slaughter-houses and live-stock markets to research her subjects and claimed that she risked being molested if she wore feminine clothes. In her relationships she referred to herself as ‘the husband’ and assumed the traditionally male role of ‘bread-winner’. She was famed for her toughness and bravery and liked to smoke, hunt and drive.

Bonheur also lived for the vast majority of her adult life in committed relationships with women. Though there is no evidence that Bonheur had sexual relations with women, it is clear 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’. Bonheur is, for this reason, sometimes cited as ‘the first lesbian artist’. Whilst rumours certainly circulated about the nature of her unconventional relationships during her lifetime, it is, problematic to retrospectively apply the term ‘lesbian’ to her way of life. Bonheur could not have defined herself in this way as there was not a clearly defined notion of homosexual or lesbian identity at the time. The various photographs and painting of Bonheur in male dress are, however, thought to have contributed to the development of an androgynous, lesbian visual identity in the early twentieth century.

The conservative style and subject-matter of Bonheur’s work is often contrasted with her unconventional life-style. The outwardly conventional nature of Bonheur’s work, and her focus on animals rather than social concerns, meant that it was easily accepted by the establishment and had broad appeal to a middle-class audience. In 1865, she even became the first woman to be awarded the Grand Cross by the French Legion of Honour. However, Bonheur’s representations of animals as icons of freedom has also been interpreted as signalling her desire to be free from the shackles of both male domination and social conventions.
  • Gender
    Female
  • Relationship
    Artist/maker
  • Nationality
    French
  • Born
    1822-03-16
  • Place of birth
    Europe: Western Europe: France: Bordeaux
  • Died
    1899-05-25
  • Place of death
    Unknown or unrecorded
  • Cause of death
    Pulmonary Congestion

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