Today’s Painting of the Week is The Horse Fair, 1852-5, the great masterpiece of French realist painter Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899).
The photograph doesn’t properly convey how massive this painting is! Over 8 feet high and 16.5 feet long, or about 2.5 by 5 meters, it takes up an entire gallery wall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s an extremely impressive painting, especially in person. The Horse Fair depicts a Parisian horse market that Bonheur visited twice every week for about a year and a half. The fair appears as a whirling storm of activity, viewed from just far enough away to avoid getting trampled. There’s a strong sense of dynamic movement from both the horses and their handlers. The horses are life-sized, so their powerful musculature and barely-contained energy give the painting a compelling hint of danger. Bonheur had a keen understanding of animal anatomy, likely the result of her visits to slaughterhouses.
Clearly, Rosa Bonheur was a pretty epic lady. Not only was she a hugely successful female artist who was respected throughout Europe and America – by itself a great accomplishment in the 19th century – but she was gutsy, confident, and skillful enough to pull of massive compositions like this one. Her love of both animals and drawing developed at a very young age. Thanks to her father, an artist and early believer in gender equality, she began her painting career at the age of 13 as his assistant. By the age of 20, she had achieved critical and commercial success that only grew further throughout her prolific career. After The Horse Fair, which is her biggest and best-known painting, her next most famous work is Plowing in the Nivernais (above), which was commissioned by the French government. The scene is calmer and more bucolic than The Horse Fair, but no less powerful. She exhibited both works in the annual Paris Salons to great acclaim. In addition to her paintings, she also made and exhibited bronze animal sculptures.
Rosa Bonheur reminds me of another female artist who also loved animals, made paintings and sculptures of them, and observed them at the Parisian animal markets. Her name was Matilda Browne, and you can read about her here.
-“The Horse Fair 1852-55“. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
-“Rosa Bonheur“. National Museum of Women in the Arts.
-Chu, Petra ten-Doesschate. Nineteenth-Century European Art. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006. P.287-9.
-Van Buskirk, Cheryl and Rebecca Baillie. “Rosa Bonheur Artist Overview and Analysis“. The Art Story. First published on June 12, 2018.