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The wild pictures of Rosa Bonheur

The unconventional “tomboy” lived and painted with the animals in the open air.

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Rosa Bonheur’s fascination with painting animals started early. She was, from a very young age, a congenital misfit and was expelled from school, she recalled, because “my tomboy manners had an unfortunate influence on my companions, who soon grew turbulent”. As a result she was a reluctant reader, so her mother taught her by encouraging her to draw an animal corresponding to every letter of the alphabet. And she never really stopped.

Bonheur went on to become France’s most famous and richest 19th-century female artist, its leading animal painter and a notable norm-defying character. Today, she is largely overlooked, but in France, Britain and the US at the time she was feted. Queen Victoria was an admirer; Bonheur was the recipient of government commissions and became the first woman artist to be awarded France’s highest decoration, the legion d’honneur. She became so wealthy that at the age of 37 she bought a chateau near Fontainebleau where she kept a menagerie that included a pet lioness called Fathma.

That she chose a lioness was appropriate, since Bonheur had little time for men. “As far as males go, I only like the bulls I paint,” she once said. There were, though, two exceptions. The first was her father, who encouraged what developed into ardent feminism. He “told me again and again that it was woman’s mission to improve the human race… To his doctrines I owe my great and glorious ambition for the sex to which I proudly belong, whose independence I’ll defend till my dying day. Besides, I’m convinced the future is ours.” The second was art itself, which she saw as masculine – not least because she thought it was “a tyrant”. Nevertheless, she gave herself to it: “I wed art. It is my husband, my world, my life dream, the air I breathe. I know nothing else, feel nothing else, think nothing else.”

[see also: The pioneering landscapes of Paul Bril]

Her own preference was for women, and she reserved the manly role for herself – a breadwinner who dressed in jacket and trousers (having first petitioned the prefect of police for the permit that was then necessary for this act of gender-inversion). She added to the chatter around her by riding horses astride, chain-smoking, cutting her hair short and shooting game. Her paintings too were unfeminine, being both large in size and portraying muscular beasts often engaged in the hard and muddy work of the countryside. One critic, confronted with her most famous painting, The Horse Fair of 1855, expressed his mystification that “so masculine a work is the production of a feminine hand”. To master her subjects, Bonheur studied animals in both Parisian abattoirs and the National Veterinary Institute: she was hardly a woman given to the vapours but said, “One must be greatly devoted to art to stand the sight of such horrors.”

Although homosexuality was decriminalised during the French Revolution, Bonheur’s decision to live unapologetically as a lesbian (although she never acknowledged it), first – for 40 years – with her childhood friend Nathalie Micas and then with an American painter called Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, nevertheless went against social mores. Indeed, it was Bonheur’s notoriety, in the form of a popular porcelain doll that was modelled after her – known as “the German gentleman” – that first inspired Klumpke to make her acquaintance. The three women would eventually be buried in the same plot at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris under a tombstone reading: “Friendship is divine affection.”

Bonheur was as single-minded about her art as about her personal life. The stream of paintings she produced presented her audience with a version of France profonde – a hearty but healthy realm of mountains, coasts and uplands whose natural inhabitants, human and animal, had roots deep in the land. But whereas most French realist painters of rural life, such as Gustave Courbet, Jules Bastien-Lepage and Jean-François Millet, painted the peasantry and none-too-ennobling poverty, Bonheur was far more interested in their beasts and livestock.

In the work that made her name, for example – Ploughing in the Nivernais of 1849, an epic painting more than eight feet wide – four farm workers are dwarfed by the 12 mighty Charolais cattle they are driving to turn over the crusted late-summer soil. It is the men who are the accessories, and the cattle and the landscape that are the real features. As if to prove it, none of the men look at the viewer – but the main ox makes accusatory eye contact, a fleck of spittle evidence of its graft. In this preference for the four-legged, Bonheur had similarities with both Edwin Landseer in Britain and the animalier sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye. Unlike Landseer, however, there is never a hint of anthropomorphism in Bonheur’s work.

This painting, Landscape with Deer of 1887, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts, shows Bonheur at her most observant and adroit. Neither element – craggy hills or animals – would work satisfyingly without the other but they complement each other perfectly. The hides of the deer mirror the tufty upland grass, and their colouration the drab tones of the hills. The mountains disappearing into the clouds add a slight touch of narrative to the scene as the foreground stag looks up at the weather closing in with a hint of apprehension. The eye is led across each element and texture – rock, sky, grass, moss, fur – almost unawares.

[see also: How Robert Smithson made art out of the landscape itself]

What she made here is simply an appropriate composition without any straining for effect. This is what you would see from the opposite slope, keeping still and with a telescope pointed. It is not, like some of her pictures, an exciting scene – these aren’t, after all, red deer with their Monarch of the Glen antlers – but it is just so. As she said: “The point of departure must always be a vision of the truth. The eye is the route of the soul, and the pencil or brush must sincerely and naively reproduce what it sees.” The fanciful and the sentimental were not for her.

Where the setting might be is not known, although Bonheur painted pictures based on the views she had seen in the Auvergne, the Pyrenees and during a visit to the Highlands of Scotland in 1856. There she had met William Millais, elder brother of the pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, and, as a trouser-wearing woman, was tickled to find him kilted – a man in a skirt.

Above all, the picture demonstrates her understanding that, just as a human sitter might choose to be shown in their drawing room or library, animals have their own natural setting too. Bonheur did occasionally pain portraits, including one of Buffalo Bill Cody after she saw his Wild West show in Paris in 1889 and invited him to her chateau, but her conception of art – that it should show what was real – meant that her animals are portraits too, and so are the landscapes in which they roam. 

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 20 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation