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.