Marie-Rosalie Bonheur also known as Rosa Bonheur was born on March 16 of 1822, in Bordeaux, France where she lived with her parents, siblings and grandparents. Artistic ability seemed to run in her family, her sister Auguste Bonheur and her father Raymond Bonheur were both artists. She was arguably the most famous female artist of the first three quarters of the nineteenth century. Even though many women at this time were amateur artists, it was very unusual for a woman to pursue painting as a career.

At the young age of 4, she was already drawing animals and landscapes.  At the age of eleven, Rosa was sent to school to learn dressmaking, but she was sent home for misbehaving in class, the same thing happened at regular school. Her father, Raymond Bonheur a landscape artist and teacher served as her instructor, since it was not possible for a woman to attend the art schools at this time.  From the age eleven on, she would spend hours in the parks on the outskirts of Paris sketching animals; by age seventeen she was helping the family income by making copies of paintings in the Louvre.

On of her first important paintings titled, Ploughing in Nivernais was bought by the French government for the collection at the Luxembourg Gallery, in Paris. Her reputation was that of the foremost animal painters of her day. Her best-known works are The Horse Fair and Weaning the Calves, both in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City.

In her painting, The Horse Fair, the horses run around full of energy, showing off their potential value to customers.  Her love of animals is reflected in the way she portrays their power and majesty, while their handlers have to concentrate on keeping them under control. She keeps your attention focused on the horses by the simple surroundings in the painting, a wall, a few trees, and small patches of sky. There is nothing between the viewer and the animals. The foreground is open, allowing the viewer to focus on the horses.

Her lifestyle was considered to be radical, due to her personal life.  She was considered to be politically and artistically conservative. Her work was very traditional, making sketches and studies to help her prepare for the larger, final paintings. She believed in first hand observation of nature and was determined to be completely accurate in every detail of her paintings. She would dissect animals, so she could sketch their muscle and body parts from all possible angles. She attended horse fairs, which were opportunities for horse dealers to show off their stock to potential buyers. Women could not attend these events, so she avoided the taunts and comments a woman would hear at these events by applying for permission from the police to dress in men’s clothing, and received authorization to do so in 1852.

It was said that Théodore Géricault had great influence on her work as well as Karl Bodmer.

She settled in France just south of Paris near Fontainebleau with her life-long companion, Nathalie Micas, and many animals lived on the premises including boars, stags, horses, oxen and lions. Bonheur died at age 77 from pulmonary influenza. She left a considerable number of pictures, studies, drawings and etchings, which were sold by auction in Paris in the spring of 1900.

Examples of her beautiful paintings can be viewed at:

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  • http://tinyurl.com/6s39q

More information on other lesser known female artists can be found here


Source: Bastian, John. Art Alive. 3rd ed. : , 1985.

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