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Rosa Bonheur, the woman who painted like a man

Rosa Bonheur ( Marie-Rosalie) was the oldest of four children, two girls and two boys, born to an idealistic artist father, Oscar-Raymond, and a patient piano teacher mother, Sophie. Interestingly, all four of the children grew to be talented and successful artists. The family moved from rural Bordeaux to Paris in 1829 when Rosa was six years old. She was a rambunctious child who enjoyed sketching as soon as she could hold a pencil, but initially struggled with reading and writing.

Rarely during the nineteenth century did the artistic career and recognition of a woman eclipse that of her male counterparts. History recognizes few females from this period in the position of artistic authority, but Rosa Bonheur established herself as the foremost “animalier,” or animal painter, linked with landscape painting and the Realist tradition. Through contacts, exhibitions, and reproductions disseminated worldwide, Rosa Bonheur’s work was well known throughout Europe and America. Her unusual ways attracted considerable public attention and she harnessed this interest throughout her life and established a niche, commercially and artistically, for her work, becoming one of the most original figures of the 19th century.

She never attended formal art classes such as the traditional École des Beaux-Arts (women were not allowed at this time), but progressed under the artistic tutelage of her father. She was said to also frequent “masculine” areas such as horse fairs and the slaughterhouses of Paris in order to gain a deeper understanding of the ranges of animal emotion and physiognomy, however gruesome the latter may have been.

Rosa also gained more training and further developed her talent while working with her siblings on her father’s commissions. Raymond continued the tradition of the family workshop, which had fallen out of favor in the 19th century. Raymond’s career as an artist burgeoned and in order to meet the demand for his works, he began to employ his children’s assistance to complete commissions.

Rosa Bonheur will be remembered for her fidelity to nature and her animals. Her understanding of and love for the subject was projected through her luminous and realistic depictions, while at the same time she did not trivialize the subject. She will also be remembered for her fiery independent character.

Simple, welcoming, of an extreme frankness, she was loved by all; because of her good heart, her generosity, her simplicity, which were not studied but spontaneous, she acquired the well deserved reputation of a beneficent fairy.

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