Rosa Bonheur managed to upstage the work of her contemporary male artists during the 19th century, a rarity in the art world. Bonheur excelled in painting and sculpting, she carved a name for herself during a time when women largely went unnoticed for their contributions towards society in general. Not only did Bonheur make a mark, she stole a lot of the limelight from other male artists. The French artist is considered an icon in her native country with streets, and bars named after her. For the French she was not just a ground breaking artist, but a prominent member of the early feminist movement in Paris. As a woman, Bonheur dared to be different and her unusual ways attracted a lot of attention. She was smart enough to build up on this interest and establish a place for herself commercially as a prominent artist of the 19th century.
She was born as Marie-Rosalie Bonheur in 1822 in Bordeaux, France, to a landscape painter father and a piano teacher mother. Having a father as an artist had an important role in fermenting Bonheur’s love for art. In fact she credited her father for being her teacher and inspiration in pursuing her dream of becoming an artist. By the time she was a teenager Bonheur had developed a strong talent for sketching animals, something she would eventually become known for. She started spending as much time as possible around farms, fairs, animal markets to study the animal life form and motion. They became her fascination. Her thorough study of their form is what led her to make iconic paintings of animals with in-depth accuracy and beauty. Initially Bonheur did face disdain from the art world due to being the opposite gender. At time she was forced to dress up in male attire to paint in public places, not that it did her much harm as it resulted in some of her masterpieces. Bonheur’s masterpiece The Horse Fair is one such painting, forced to paint dressed as a man at a horse fair, Bonheur created a truly awe inspiring painting. Due to the nature of discrimination she faced as a woman it took Bonheur a year and a half to complete this painting without drawing too much attention to her disguise. The paintings life are the horses which adorn it. The way she has managed to capture their strut and flying mane is magical. She has used the perfect texture and blend of colors to show horses in all their mighty beauty. Bonheur made the horses look like creature from another world. The Horse Fair can now be found at the MoMA IN New York.
Bonheur’s deep connection with animals can be attributed to the fact that her father taught her that every living thing is precious and has its own soul. In animals, Bonheur found a deep sense of respect and awe. Bonheur’s love for painting made her travel to London, America, Germany and Spain which she quickly started after gaining a rapid following amongst the art circles in Paris. Bonheur is the first women to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour in 1865. Parallel to this Bonheur remained an advocate for talking openly about women’s rights in a patriarchal society. She published many articles in newspapers and newsletter distributed widely within Paris. Rosa Bonheur’s distinguished career was filled with awards and well deserved recognition.