Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the 200th anniversary of artist Rosa Bonheur’s birthday, a trailblazing Frenchwoman who would become the darling of the English art scene for her Realist paintings of animals.
As a young woman, Bonheur was encouraged to paint. She spent her days in abattoirs and fields studying her animal subjects, and by the time she was in her early 30s, she had become famous for her painting The Horse Fair (ca. 1852–55), which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The success of this work launched her career definitively.
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Soon after that work drew acclaim, Bonheur met with royalty like Queen Victoria, and she would eventually become the first woman to be awarded France’s highest order, the Legion of Honor. All this meant that Bonheur achieved her lifelong dream of supporting herself and the women she loved financially. Bonheur lived with her partner Nathalie Micas for more than 40 years, up until the day Micas died.
When looking back at the history of art and noting the lack of canonized women, the presence of an artist like Bonheur can often seem surprising. If she could make it, why not others? This was the question that Linda Nochlin asked in her landmark 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” In it, Nochlin acknowledges Bonheur’s great talent while pointing out the highly specific circumstances that allowed Bonheur to become “one of the most successful and accomplished women painters of all time.” That essay, along with other writings by feminist scholars, has helped bring renewed attention to Bonheur over the past few decades.
First among them was Bonheur’s family. Her mother and father belonged to a niche Christian-Socialist sect named Saint-Simonianism, which advocated for the equality of women and workers. Bonheur’s father, an impoverished artist, felt strongly about emancipation of women, and insisted that she strive for independence and pursue her career as an artist. Bonheur had a close example at home of what could happen if she become prey to the domestic trap: her own mother. Nochlin writes that Bonheur “disapproved of the additional strain which her father’s apostolate placed on her overburdened mother,” who reared six children and ran the household.
Another important factor was simply timing. Bonheur began sketching cows and other farm animals long before she could even read. This love of hers, nurtured by her father, happened to sync with the style of the times. “With the rise of the bourgeoisie and the fall of the cultivated aristocracy, smaller paintings, generally of every-day subjects, rather than grandiose mythological or religious scenes, were much in demand,” wrote Nochlin.
Paintings of landscapes and animals were so sought after that artists looking for security in the market quickly pivoted to those subjects. Bonheur, naturally inclined to this type of painting to begin with, was already a master of the style. Her pastoral pictures, like The Highland Shepherd (1859), often depict shepherds and farmers wearing clothing that had already been out of use for more than a century by the time she painted these images. The anachronisms were intentional, and critics loved them.
Nochlin regarded Bonheur’s relationship with Micas as a “Platonic union” that conveniently provided Bonheur with companionship without the sacrifices of marriage, an “arrangement for women who wished to avoid the distraction of children in the days before reliable contraception.” Subsequent critics have framed artist’s relationship with Micas as decidedly queer, and also placed a greater emphasis on Bonheur’s ties to the painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, whom Bonheur lived with and whom Nochlin did not mention. While today Bonheur’s relationships with women are seen as being indicative of her lesbianism, regardless her lack of children undoubtedly had an effect on her life and career, perhaps more than we can know.