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Le Retour du Moulin

Rosa Bonheur, 1847 - 1848 probably

WAG 185

About this object

Rosa Bonheur was a specialist in animals. The texture in the coats of the horse and donkey show that her style was rooted in direct observation of nature. She kept a small menagerie, visited slaughterhouses and dissected animals to gain anatomical knowledge. Her work was especially popular with English collectors.

At a time when it was exceptional for women to have independent careers, Bonheur was a feminist ahead of her time. She had short hair, smoked and wore masculine clothing.

This painting of a miller guiding a horse and donkey is probably one of six paintings shown in the 1848 Paris Salon, for which Bonheur was awarded a First Class Medal. The conventional style of her paintings, and their focus on animals rather than social concerns, allowed her to achieve international acclaim and commercial success at a time when it was exceptional for women to have independent careers.

The treatment of texture in the coats of the horse and donkey show the influence of her father Raymond Bonheur, a social reformist painter. As a follower of the Saint-Simonian movement he was suspicious of individualistic and expressive art and drew instead on the natural sciences to develop an approach that could convince people to accept social reforms. The difficulty for Rosa Bonheur was that, though committed to the direct observation of nature, as a woman she was banned from the slaughterhouses and livestock markets that could provide her with subjects for anatomical and life studies. Instead she had to obtain a police permit to cross-dress and disguised herself in men’s clothing to gain admittance. However, her style of dress was not only for such practical reasons. It was also part of her own subversive feminist identity. Indeed, Rosa’s distinctively mannish look has been credited with helping to shape the androgynous lesbian visual identity of the early 20th century.

Rosa was also strongly influenced by the feminism of the Saint-Simonian movement, which fought for women to have equal access to education, more control over their own lives and greater involvement in civic decision-making. Enfantin (1796-1864), the leader of the movement, also questioned gender boundaries, arguing that all individuals possessed elements of male and female identity. Bonheur strived to live a life that did not distinguish so clearly between genders. She established herself as a proactive and financially independent female, who smoked, wore men’s clothes, hunted, drove and lived in committed relationships with other women. Her lifestyle was so unconventional that she was described as a ‘mentally and physically pronounced example of a sexual intermediate’ in the 1900 annual survey on Homosexuality by the German Sexologist, Magnus Hirschfield. It has even been suggested that Bonheur included several discreet portraits of herself in male clothes in her paintings to celebrate her nonconformity. In ‘Le Retour du Moulin’ the miller is partly obscured, his face hidden by the shadow of his hat. Could this be one of those self-portraits? Or is the depersonalised human presence simply a means of emphasising the character and individualism of the animals?

She also continued the Saint-Simonian fight to abolish the Napoleonic Code’s sections on inheritance, which prevented women from inheriting property. She used her last will and testament to force a change in the law and give her the right to transfer her property to another woman — Anna Klumpke. Rosa referred to the American painter as her ‘wife’, living with her until her death in 1899.

Object specifics

  • Other title(s)
    The Return from the Mill
  • Artist(s)
    Rosa Bonheur (French, born:1822-03-16, died:1899-05-25)
  • Date
    1847 - 1848 probably
  • Materials
    Oil paint; Canvas
  • Measurements
    canvas/support: 27.3 cm x 35.5 cm; frame: 51.2 cm x 59.7 cm x 9.2 cm
  • Physical description
    Rural scene showing a miller escorting a white horse and a donkey, carrying sacks of flour, along a dirt track.
  • Related people
    Agnew's Gallery (Previous owner) ; Rosa Bonheur (Artist/maker) ; Emma Georgina Holt (Previous owner) ; George Holt (Previous owner) ; F T Turner (Previous owner)
  • Other number(s)
    WAG Inventory Number: 185
  • Credit line
    Bequeathed to the Walker Art Gallery by Emma Holt in 1944
  • Location
    Sudley House, Ground Floor, Morning Room
  • Collection
    From the Sudley House collections


Previous owners

  • Emma Georgina Holt

    Owned from: 1896
    How acquired: By descent from George Holt
    Owned until: 1944
    Disposal method: Bequeathed to the Walker Art Gallery
  • George Holt

    Owned from: 1889
    How acquired: purchased from Agnew's for £600
    Owned until: 1896
    Disposal method: By descent to Emma Holt
  • Agnew's Gallery

    Owned from: 1878
    How acquired: purchased from Christie's 4 May 1878, lot 56 for £598 10s 0d
    Owned until: 1889
    Disposal method: sold to George Holt for £600
  • F T Turner

    Owned from: -?-
    How acquired: Unknown or unrecorded
    Owned until: 1878
    Disposal method: sold at Christie's 4 May 1878, lot 56 for £598 10s 0d


Item inscriptions

  • Inscription text: ROSA BO(NHEUR)
    Inscription method:
    Inscription note:
    Inscription location: Front; Lower right
Object view = Fine Art
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