Does the name Rosa Bonheur mean anything to you ? Hint: She was the most well-known female French painter in the 19th century, the first woman painter to receive the Legion of Honor (presented by the Empress Eugenia herself). Still no bells? She painted animals. Still no idea? Well don’t feel bad it seems most French people don’t know who she is either. In fact despite being French, born in Bordeaux, growing up in Paris and then living in a château with menagerie on the edge of the Fontainbleau forest, she was in fact more well known and her paintings were more appreciated by the English and Americans. She was so famous at the time that Queen Victoria, who had a love for animals as well, requested Rosa visit her. It is even hard to find her paintings in French museums. Many were sold into private collections and some are now seen in American museums. But she is very much worth knowing especially if you have a fondness for animals. Rosa sure did, she especially loved cows. She appreciated the texture of fur and especially the expression and soul of each creature. She connected with her subjects; had a tenderness for them. When you look at her paintings you don’t just see pretty or bucolic you see power, sweat, courage, determination all in the faces and muscles of the animals.
Rosa Bonheur’s works… are sincerely felt and scrupulously executed… Her simplicity succeeds better than the fine devices of other painters, and public opinion, that big spoiled child, was not displeased by her naïve brush. Eugène de Mirecourt, 1856
She loved animals so much that when she painted a rare portrait of a person, for example Buffalo Bill, who was a good friend, she depicted him on his horse and it is the horse that really shines in that portrait. Another painter did a portrait of Rosa situating her next to a cow to represent her work. Rosa was so disappointed in the rendering of the cow that she told the painter to concentrate on her likeness and that she would paint the cow and so she did. She was strong willed and determined in every thing she did. To get animal anatomy right she spent hours in stockyards, slaughterhouses, days at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show when it visited Paris in 1889 and for years kept a menagerie at her chateau with lions, deer, horses, an otter, a wolf and other creatures brought from far and wide. She never gave an inch in her way of doing things and on being independent financially. She painted in plein air, which was unconventional at the time. She was her own boss, a « New Woman », identifying with the power and the freedom that was at the time only available to men and thus she never married, never allowed herself to be an adjunct to a man and relied only on herself. My mother would have called liberal and defiant Rosa a “free spirit”. Her technical mastery and dedication did the rest. Her fame cracked opened the doors of careers in art to other women.
Today you can visit her home and atelier not far from Fontainebleau in the town of Thomery. The property has been purchased by the Brault family and they are investing themselves into their new venture and the preservation of Rosa’s legacy. The atelier is a wonder to see. It is large, on an upper floor with lots of large windows. There is a small dark room too. There are naturalized animals all around and Rosa’s palette, paintings and sketches as if she was just there that morning. It has been more than 120 years since she died, but her long time companion (American expat) Anna Klumpke who inherited the estate kept everything intact and it remained in the family until the Braults bought it last year. And it is a treasure ; it’s a rare thing to find a space so complete that it is the closest thing to actually meeting Rosa Bonheur. Zélie Brault, an art history student, has embraced Rosa as if she were her own grandmother. Zélie dresses in pants with a velvet vest and tie just like Rosa Bonheur when she gives tours of the house and tells the story with passion. She, like Rosa, is determined to one day unravel the mystery of Rosa’s mother’s illegitimate birth. She’s also happy to speak English with visitors though for the moment the tours are in only rapid-fire passionate French. Thanks to the 2018 French lottery to raise money for historic preservation there is already a lovely tea room and soon there will be bed and breakfast rooms at the chateau. One day you’ll be able to even sleep in this famous painter’s bedroom!
One of Rosa Bonheur’s most famous paintings « Plowing in the Nivernais » is at the Musée d’Orsay where on a recent visit a middle-aged American man in shorts walked behind us and blurted out « wow, that’s really good that one » which for the speaker seemed to be high praise. Another painting and some sculptures can be seen at the Fine arts museum in Bordeaux. She is buried in Père Lachaise with a simple marker.
Tours of the atelier/chateau must be reserved in advance and are usually in French, but the passionate young art student giving the tours speaks excellent English, so you may be able to persuade them to initiate tours in English. Find out more: https://www.chateau-rosa-bonheur.fr/
A lovely novel has been written in French based on the friendship between Rosa Bonheur and Buffalo Bill. It is available in Bill & Rosa’s Book Room for borrowing. Their connection to each other by finding much in common despite their different backgrounds is an inspiration for us all especially in today’s divided world.
The Book Room also has the biographies of Rosa and Bill by their closest companions Anna Klumpke and Louisa Frederici Cody published in 1908 and 1919 respectively. Not only are these first hand sources about these two people but they are also both major contributions to the social history of the nineteenth century in France and the United States.