Rosa Bonheur – The ‘Realist’ Animal Painter of French Origin

Marie-Rosalie Bonheur, also called Rosa Bonheur, was a French ‘Realist’ animal painter and sculptor in the nineteenth century. Born into a family of artists at Bordeaux on March 16, 1822, she attained the rare honor of artistic recognition and career success unlike her other female contemporaries. Highly popular in Europe and America, Rosa’s artistic lineage has always been a feather on her cap. Her father, Raimond Bonheur, was a landscape & portrait artist and mother Sophie, who passed away when she was only eleven, was a piano teacher. Her popular siblings were artist sisters, Auguste Bonheur and Juliette Bonheur, and sculptor Isidore Jules Bonheur. Also the tutor of Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, Rosa Bonheur established herself as a leading animal painter. Her works employed the techniques of landscape paintings dipped in ‘Realism.’

In 1828, the Bonheurs moved to Paris. Owing to her defiant and aggressive disposition, Rosa was expelled from several schools, and her parents had hard time teaching her. Her mother tried channelizing her educational interests by making her draw an animal for each alphabet. These drawings were the sown seeds of her ‘Animaliere’ interests. As girls were not allowed to join art schools, Bonheur’s father started training her for her drawing and painting when she was twelve. Her passion for animals, translated on canvass, gave distinction to her works. She also exhibited strong influence of the English animal painter, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, in her works. Bonheur regularly visited slaughterhouses and École nationale vétérinaire d’Alfort, the national veterinary institute in Paris, to dissect animal and learn their anatomy for her paintings and sculptures.

Rosa tasted success and honor for the first time when she received a French government commission for the painting, ‘Ploughing in the Nivernais’ in1849. Her most celebrated works fetching her international fame was the colossal, ‘Horse Fair (1853-55).’ In 1855, Rosa travelled to Scotland and met Queen Victoria, who liked her work. ‘A Scottish Raid (1860),’ and ‘Highland Shepherd,’ are her two iconic paintings she created here. Considered one of the most renowned women painters of her time, Bonheur reached the highs of fame in England more than that in France. The modern thinking woman that she was, Rosa was also noted for wearing men’s attire, which she would find ‘strictly practical’ in her work with animals. During the reign of Empress Eugenie, she was also awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor. Marie-Rosalie Bonheur passed away at the age of 77, on May 25, 1899, at Thomery, France. Many of her unseen works were auctioned in Paris in 1900.