Rosa Bonheur, an animal painter and an extraordinary personality to be rediscovered at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bordeaux

Rosa Bonheur, a great friend of animals of all kinds, who revolutionized the painter’s view of animals, was born in Bordeaux on March 16, 1822. This woman with a unique personality was a real star in her lifetime on both sides of the Atlantic. She fell into oblivion after her death. On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth, the Bordeaux Museum of Fine Arts is dedicating him a major exhibition in its Gallery in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay, where it will be presented next autumn.

Two rabbits appear to tremble on the canvas. One sniffs for a carrot while the other is already looking at us out of the corner of our eye. This painting, Rosa Bonheur painted it when she was barely 18 years old. He was noticed in 1841 at the Salon, where she attended for the first time.

Rosa Bonheur was born into a family of artists. Her father Raimond Bonheur taught her to draw, and she perfected this most academic training by copying the masters of the Louvre. Very quickly she went over to painting animals. In 1848, her brother Auguste, also a painter, represented her as a proud young woman with her palette and sculptures.

Rosa Happiness (1822-1899),

Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) had not been exhibited in France since the Bordeaux retrospective in 1997. “In 25 years we have discovered works and art history is moving forward. It was time to review these results”, emphasizes Sophie Barthélémy, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Bordeaux. “We wanted to present the best of Rosa Bonheur, a prolific work of thousands of works, to offer a new reading. And then to rediscover this extraordinary woman who had a somewhat romantic journey. A surprisingly modern woman and at the same time classic.”

Rosa Bonheur was orphaned by her mother at the age of 11 and received an emancipatory education from her father, a supporter of Saint-Simon. She will never marry, will know how to live her life as a free woman in a world where women are dedicated to home life, and will be allowed to wear pants for her work in the field. She lives with a woman, Nathalie Micas, for almost 40 years at the castle she was able to acquire in Thomery (Seine-et-Marne) thanks to her commercial success. So at the end of her life with a young American painter Anna Klumpke.

Having become an icon of feminism, however, she is not an activist for women’s cause, though she confirms “support (their) independence”. “Rosa Bonheur’s work and personality resonate today with all societal issues, especially around issues of feminism”, emphasizes Sophie Barthélémy. And also “about the animal cause, which she vehemently defended”. She was one of the first members of the SPA, established in 1845.

Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), A reclining lioness and seven studies of her head, nd, graphite drawing (© RMN-Grand Palais (Orsay Museum) / photo Thierry Le Mage)

In the twenties, Rosa Bonheur painted agricultural scenes. “Rosa Bonheur shifts focus, animals are at the heart of her concerns”notes Leïla Jarbouai, chief curator of graphic arts and paintings at the Musée d’Orsay and co-curator of the exhibition, who points out “the materiality of his painting” of the earth. Of Haymaking in Auvergnethe final version of the table “is pretty solid, we have not chosen it”, thinks Leïla Jarbouai. We will therefore see a sketch“much more alive”. For each painting, the artist produced a series of studies, many of which are presented at the exhibition, and which show his great mastery of drawing. She was very attached to them and kept them all her life.

The painting that really made Rosa Bonheur’s career take off is Nivernais Plowing, commissioned by the state after the gold medal it received at the Salon in 1848. A monumental painting in which two teams of three pairs of oxen ride obliquely, their feet sunk into the ground, during the peasants’ relay. To accomplish this, she went into the field to observe the various breeds of cattle. “The photographic side of the work affected his contemporaries very much”, says Leïla Jarbouai. We could even talk about the cinematic side, we feel the slow motion and the animals’ efforts. We also feel the pain in the confused eye that the bull throws at us in the middle of the scene. And if the animals are painted in detail, the men who take them away are more blurred.

Rosa Happiness (1822-1899),

Rosa Bonheur then enters the project with a painting at a horse market, which will have a phenomenal success. For this painting “which she regards as her great masterpiece”, says the commissioner, she still goes out into the field and produces hundreds of drawn and painted studies. The final version, measuring 5 m by 2.4 m, stored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, did not reach the trip. But we will see a reduction that she made for an engraving. And then a rarity, discovered a few months ago, rolled tightly together in the attic of the Château de By, where the artist lived for 40 years. It is the drawing made on the canvas that may disappear under the paint (the artist modified his project and therefore changed the canvas). “Not at all a detail drawing, a destiny created to work with movement and its degradation, a dynamic, synthetic, somewhat abstract drawing”notes Leïla Jarbouai.

“With this painting, Rosa Bonheur shows an enormous ambition and gives a banal subject the power and glow like a battle scene. One gets the impression that the horses are in revolt, that human power is in a very delicate balance.”comments Sandra Buratti-Hasan, deputy director of the Bordeaux Museum of Fine Arts and co-curator of the exhibition.

Rosa Happiness (1822-1899),

If Rosa Bonheur is remembered as a painter of oxen and sheep, she was also interested in wild animals. The animals she represented, she rubbed daily with them. Because of her Château de By, purchased in 1860, she hosts a true menagerie, dogs, sheep and passing wildlife. She can be seen in a photo lying in the garden next to her lioness Fatma.

Of all her animals, she makes real portraits, where what always strikes is the eye that looks at us. We discover some in Bordeaux who have never been shown in France because of Rosa Bonheur, because of her success horse market, now receives orders from abroad. We are struck by its lions, a large deer or a magnificent series of pastel portraits of a dog in different positions. The desperate look from a hunting dog bound very briefly is infinitely sad.

There are in these paintings “a very photographic and at the same time idealized side, it is photographic and it is not at all. There is a kind of symbolism”, emphasizes Sandra Buratti-Hasan. A lion family, where the male lies next to the female and the young, is completely unrealistic. An astonishing eagle, frozen during the escape, produced in 1870 in the midst of the Franco-Prussian War, appears to be causing the French wound.

Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), Untitled, ca.  1892, draws on cyanotype (© Castle of Rosa Bonheur, City, Thomery)

Rosa Bonheur practiced photography herself and had set up a laboratory in her home. At the end of her life, she was still experimenting, as evidenced by cyanotypes (an ancient photographic process in blue print) rendered in pencil, watercolor, and gouache.

The exhibition is also reminiscent of her travels in the Pyrenees or in Scotland, and her passion for horses, bison and the natives of the American West, which she could meet as she passed through the 1898 World’s Fair in Buffalo Bill with her Wild West Show.

“Unlike many exhibitions, this one is not the culmination of many years of research, it is rather a launch. When we started our work, there was almost nothing in France about Rosa Bonheur. There are studies across the Atlantic, Château de By is working on its archives, we try to make students want to write dissertations about the artist.There are still many things to dig into,”Promises Leïla Jarbouai, who evokes the subjects of photography, or the work that the artist was able to produce in collaboration with his brother, Nathalie Micas or others.

Rosa Lykke, bgallery of the Museum of Fine Arts in Bordeaux and the exhibition continues at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bordeaux. City Hall Garden, 20 cours d’Albret, and Place du Oberst Raynal, 33000 Bordeaux. All days except Tuesdays and some public holidays (open 14 July and 15 August), 11.00-18.00. Prices (temporary exhibitions + permanent collections): € 7 / € 4
From 18 May to 18 September 2022

The exhibition will be in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay from 18 October 2022 to 15 January 2023.

Pink Happinessthe exhibition catalog, co-published by Flammarion and the Musée d’Orsay, presents texts by Sophie Barthélémy, Leïla Jarbouai, Sandra Buratti-Hasan and many other specialists, 288 pages 211 x 287 mm, 45 €

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