Women Artists

Rosa Bonheur in 10 Paintings

Jimena Escoto 26 June 2024 min Read

Rosa Bonheur’s paintings are some of the most acclaimed depictions of animals in Western art history, making her one of the most important artists of the 19th century. Her dynamic and vivid images of horses, sheep, cows, lions, and more, gained her international recognition. Bonheur was highly prolific, and art historians and museums have tried to restore her fame in recent years. Let us discuss some of her most iconic paintings.

1. Two Rabbits, 1840

Rosa Bonheur paintings: Rosa Bonheur, Two Rabbits, 1840, Musée des Beaux Arts, Bordeaux, France.

Rosa Bonheur, Two Rabbits, 1840, Musée des Beaux Arts, Bordeaux, France.

Two Rabbits was the first of numerous paintings Rosa Bonheur submitted to the Paris Salon. She was only 19 years old when the jury accepted this painting in 1841. Many women artists of the time focused on animals and plants because they could not access artistic education, but Bonheur had a profound love for animals. She became one of the greatest animalières of her time.

2. Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849

Rosa Bonheur paintings: Rosa Bonheur, Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

Rosa Bonheur, Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

Ploughing in the Nivernais also entered the Paris Salon in 1849, receiving a third-class medal. By then, Bonheur’s paintings had acquired enough recognition in France that the French government commissioned this painting. Later, the painting was exhibited in the Musée du Luxembourg. Similar scenes were common in Bonheur’s portfolio as a way of depicting the harmony between man and nature.

3. The Horse Fair, 1855

Rosa Bonheur paintings: Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair, 1852–1855, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY, USA.

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair, 1852–1855, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY, USA.

Bonheur had always wanted to paint a horse fair. She loved horses and had been studying them for a long time. After 1849, the Duke of Morny approached her to commission a painting. Bonheur showed him sketches of The Horse Fair, but the Duke was not confident she could render a good result given her lack of experience painting horses. Nevertheless, she completed The Horse Fair in 1855 and presented it at the Salon.

Queen Victoria is said to have admired this painting when it traveled to England. Bonheur might not have painted many horses before this, but she diligently studied every part of the anatomy of live exemplars at the local fair. Although her paintings are usually classified as Realism, there is an evident influence of Théodore Gericault and Eugène Delacroix’s Romantic depictions of horses.

The Duke regretted his choice once he saw the painting’s international success. Unfortunately, when he tried to rectify his mistake, The Horse Fair had already sold. In 1887, Cornelius Vanderbilt II donated the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

4. Haymaking in the Auvergne, 1855

Rosa Bonheur paintings: Rosa Bonheur, Haymaking in the Auvergne, 1855, Château de Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau, France.

Rosa Bonheur, Haymaking in the Auvergne, 1855, Château de Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau, France.

Instead of The Horse Fair, the Duke of Morny commissioned Haymaking in the Auvergne. Over the years, the Salon’s jury awarded Bonheur medals to celebrate her achievements, and this one was no exception. She won a gold medal, and the painting later entered the Musée du Luxembourg. This was a great achievement for a society that seemed skeptical about exhibiting living artists in museums, or at least next to the old masters.

5. Sheep by the Sea, 1865

Rosa Bonheur paintings: Rosa Bonheur, Sheep by the Sea, 1865, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA.

Rosa Bonheur, Sheep by the Sea, 1865, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA.

Empress Eugénie of France commissioned Sheep by the Sea. Although sheep are domesticated animals, Bonheur represented them without humans. She took inspiration from her trip to the Scottish Highlands in 1856. Here’s a fun fact: Bonheur was interested in astrology. Her biography by Anna Klumpke reveals that Bonheur determined her Zodiac sign to be Aries. She thought this was perfect because she started her artistic career painting sheep.

6. The Wounded Eagle, 1870

Rosa Bonheur paintings: Rosa Bonheur, The Wounded Eagle, c. 1870, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Rosa Bonheur, The Wounded Eagle, c. 1870, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, USA.

During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the themes of Rosa Bonheur’s paintings shifted to wild animals. The armed conflict made her tired of peaceful animals. A wounded eagle mid-flight might have been challenging for an artist who relied on life drawing. Birds, in general, were not part of Bonheur’s work, so this is a unique painting. Furthermore, this painting could have a deeper meaning than her usual works. For instance, one interpretation suggests that the eagle symbolizes Napoleon III’s Second Empire being defeated by the Prussians.

7. King of the Forest, 1878

Rosa Bonheur paintings: Rosa Bonheur, King of the Forest, 1878, private collection.

Rosa Bonheur, King of the Forest, 1878, private collection.

Stags are one of those animals that fascinate animal painters. Their antlers give them a majestic aura worthy of a portrait like the famous Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Landseer. Rosa Bonheur painted several stags throughout her career, but the artist herself considered King of the Forest one of her masterpieces.

8. El Cid, 1879

Rosa Bonheur paintings: Rosa Bonheur, El Cid, 1879, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Rosa Bonheur, El Cid, 1879, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Rosa Bonheur loved the fierceness, power, and majesty lions imposed on the viewer. She visited the Parisian zoo and circuses to represent them accurately. Other paintings of lions show them more naturally, but this one gives the lion a quasi-human quality. It truly is a portrait of a lion with a personality. The name of this painting today, El Cid, refers to Spain, where the word means “sir.” It arrived at the Museo del Prado in 1879 as a gift. Bonheur’s fame was widespread by this time, and her talent earned her the Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic.

9. Portrait of Colonel William F. Cody, 1889

Rosa Bonheur paintings: Rosa Bonheur, Portrait of Colonel William F. Cody, 1889, Whitney Western Art Museum, Cody, WY, USA.

Rosa Bonheur, Portrait of Colonel William F. Cody, 1889, Whitney Western Art Museum, Cody, WY, USA.

Americans adored Rosa Bonheur so much that they created a doll based on her. This admiration for the painter was reciprocated, as she showed great interest in American culture, specifically the Wild West. In 1889, Colonel William F. Cody, also known as Buffalo Bill, and his Wild West show traveled to Paris. Of course, she attended the show and met Colonel Cody, for whom she painted this portrait. Portraits were not Bonheur’s choice of genre; therefore, this is another unique painting in her portfolio.

10. Bison in the Snow, 1897

Rosa Bonheur paintings: Rosa Bonheur, Bison in the Snow, 1897. Coeur d’Alene Art Auction.

Rosa Bonheur, Bison in the Snow, 1897. Coeur d’Alene Art Auction.

As an animal lover, Bonheur’s interest in the Wild West included the bison. Her friendship with Colonel Cody granted her access to his encampment in Paris, where she could sketch live animals. Moreover, she was aware of the killing of bison in America, a tactic to deprive Native Americans of their primary source of food and clothing. She painted Bison in the Snow in 1897.

This selection of Rosa Bonheur’s paintings shows her extraordinary talent for depicting domesticated and wild animals. Fortunately, many of her paintings, preparatory drawings, and studies can still be seen today in America and Europe.

Bibliography

1.

El Cid, Museo del Prado Online Collection. Accessed: 17 Jun 2024.

2.

Rosa Bonheur, National Museum of Women Artists. Accessed: 17 Jun 2024.

3.

Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), Musée d’Orsay. Accessed: 17 Jun 2024.

4.

Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), exhibition booklet, Musée d’Orsay. Accessed: 17 Jun 2024.

5.

Rosa Bonheur, L’Aigle blessé, 2022, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux. Accessed: 17 Jun 2024.

6.

Anna Klumpke: Rosa Bonheur; sa vie, son œuvre, 1909, Archive.org. Accessed 17 Jun 2024.

7.

Cheryl Van Buskirk: Rosa Bonheur Artist Overview and Analysis, 2024, Art Story. Accessed: 17 Jun 2024.

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