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Rosa Bonheur: The brilliant eccentric who became an artistic superstar

Rosa Bonheur in Her Studio. A print from the Le Petit Journal, 1893 - Credit: Print Collector/Getty Images

The life of Rosa Bonheur, often considered the most famous female painter of the 19th century

Rosa Bonheur might have been one of the greatest artists of the 19th century but you probably wouldn’t have wanted her living next door.

Having moved from Bordeaux to Paris in the late 1820s when she was six years old, living in an apartment five floors up halfway between the Arc de Triomphe and Montmartre never stopped Rosa, her parents and her three siblings losing their feeling for the countryside. Their home was cramped enough with six people in it, but the eccentric Bonheurs shared their eyrie with rabbits, a family of ducks, some canaries, finches, a squirrel named Kiko and a sheep. While most of the menagerie needed little in the way of husbandry, family members would take it in turns to carry the sheep down five flights of stairs to graze on nearby Parc Monceau before climbing the five flights again, sheep in arms.

Years later, when she’d made her fortune and purchased the sprawling, 17th century Chateau de By on the fringes of the forest of Fontainebleau, Rosa kept a standard range of horses (including three mustangs purchased after she met – and painted – Buffalo Bill), cattle, sheep and goats, but there was also a Bengal tiger, three panthers, a lion called Néro with whom she liked to doze on the verandah, a monkey called Rastata and a stag called Roland. At one point she briefly added two polar bears to the collection. Inside the house were countless birds, dogs and an otter who slept in her bed.

Spending so much time with and among fauna from around the world contributed in no small part to Bonheur establishing herself as one of the finest painters of the animal kingdom in the history of art, not to mention being easily the best known woman artist of her time. Through paintings such as the vast The Horse Fair from the 1850s and 1849’s Ploughing in the Nivernais she captured animals in intricate detail, her subjects anatomically perfect but also vividly alive on the canvas. The horses in The Horse Fair were wild-eyed and rearing, the yoked oxen of Ploughing in the Nivernais plodded wearily through the mud in the evening sunshine so convincingly you could almost hear their hooves squelching in the mud.

Bonheur was no mere gifted eccentric. She was one of the first artists to exploit her work commercially, producing and endorsing prints and engravings that sold in huge quantities. This monetising of the muse had the art world’s snootier gamekeepers looking down upon her but she didn’t care; her work brought her fame and money and both combined to secure what she valued most: independence.

It can be difficult today to appreciate just how famous Bonheur was during her lifetime. In 1865 when she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, the Empress Eugenie travelled to Fontainebleau to bestow it rather than Bonheur travelling to Paris in the accepted manner. Georges Bizet wrote a cantata, since lost, specifically to commemorate the occasion. European royals from Tsar Nicholas II to Queen Victoria requested meetings and private views of her work, a rose was named after her and there was even a porcelain doll produced in her likeness, sold in shops across France.

The independence she was able to enjoy as a result of her success was something rarely granted to a woman in 19th century Europe. For a start it meant she could live with her long-term partner Nathalie Micas in as openly gay a relationship as the times allowed. The couple had known each other since their teens and when Micas died in 1889 Bonheur was devastated. Four years later, considering her own mortality she wrote, “I have nothing on earth to regret leaving. Since my dear Nathalie has gone from me, I look on the world as an object of indifference, as if seeing a play”. The couple are buried together in Père Lachaise.

In art, in her personal life, in everything Bonheur did or believed in she kicked against convention. She dressed in men’s clothing, something for which she required a permit from the Paris police renewable every six months with a signature from a doctor confirming the request was “for health reasons”. There was practical thinking as well as personal expression behind her preference for trousers and waistcoats over petticoats and bustiers: Bonheur spent long hours in abattoirs and cattle markets studying animals up close, the crowds, the muck and the mess making hooped skirts impractical. A heavy smoker, she enjoyed cigars and rolled her own cigarettes, an act deemed so vulgar for a woman it was regarded as a sign of prostitution.

In addition, she’d been raised by her father as a disciple of the Christian socialist utopian Henri de Saint-Simon who, among other ideals, advocated absolute equality of the sexes. So devoted was Rosa’s father Raymond Bonheur to Saint-Simon’s doctrine that he left the family home in Paris to live in a Simonian commune when Rosa and her siblings were children, effectively leaving their piano teacher mother Sophie to bring them up alone.

Raymond was a successful artist keen for his children to be given as much opportunity to express themselves as possible. All four would go on to forge careers in art but Rosa proved by far the most gifted. When she wasn’t studying the animals at first hand she was sitting in the Louvre with her sketchbook, making painstaking copies of works by Poussin, Rubens and particularly the 17th century Dutch artist Paulus Potter, one of the great animal painters.

For hours she would sit identifying and imitating their techniques, trying to see the subjects through their eyes, learning how to walk the line between anatomical correctness and romantic expression. Her gaze bore into the canvases, trying to get beneath the skin of the animals, to the bones, the muscles and sinews, matching the creatures she saw at the markets to the ones in the gallery until they appeared to come alive in front of her eyes, snorting, stamping, pawing the ground.

By her mid-20s Bonheur was selling enough of her work to make a living until in 1848 she was awarded a gold medal by a salon whose panel included Eugène Delacroix. With the medal came a 3,000-franc commission for a work on the subject of ploughing, which would turn out to be one of her finest. Ploughing at Nivernais, described by Cezanne as “horribly like the real thing”, is arguably her masterpiece.

The Horse Fair followed, a huge canvas 16ft by eight that awed those who saw its depiction of equestrian power and beauty, and triggered a long-term and lucrative relationship with the Belgian dealer Ernest Gambart who would be largely responsible for Bonheur’s subsequent commercial success. He took the painting to London, where Queen Victoria was one of many admirers who came to view the work. Prints of The Horse Fair proved hugely popular in Britain and then the US, where the original was eventually bought in 1887 by Cornelius Vanderbilt for a whopping $53,000 and presented to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This success in the Anglosphere only stoked the sneering from her peers in France, emphasising for Bonheur the importance of her global audience. After exhibiting at the 1855 Paris salon she didn’t show a work in France for another 12 years and never premiered new work in her home country again.

It was, of course, mostly men doing the sneering and attempting to devalue her success, something that only increased her general antipathy towards their gender. “As far as males go, I only like the bulls I paint,” she sniffed back at the sniffers.

In fact, other than the women she held close – after Micas’ death the American artist Anna Klumpke became her companion for her final years – it was among the animals that Rosa Bonheur felt most at home. At the Chateau de By she’d rise early, going out into the golden light of dawn, listening to the birdsong, walking with and among the animals she loved and returning to her studio to give them an extra lease of life on her canvas.

In 1886 she told a friend she wouldn’t be able to spend much time at her second home in Nice – where she had installed a false doorbell to prevent a constant stream of unsolicited visitors – because she was caring for a recently acquired pair of lion cubs.

“We find them more grateful, more frank, these wild beasts,” she said, “than are most human beings.”