Rosa Bonheur’s Animal Instinct 

PARIS — On a visit to the Musée d’Orsay in late October — school holiday time in France — the lines to get in were long, and the soaring space inside as teeming with people as it might have been when it was still a train station. The Musée d’Orsay is always a big draw for those in search of Art History/Instagram gold — Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” or Monet’s “Haystacks” or van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” — and the current exhibitions feature photogenic offerings from American Kehinde Wiley and Norwegian Edvard Munch, but the museum is also holding a retrospective for French animalière Rosa Bonheur. Of the three, Bonheur is likely the least well-known to contemporary audiences. But that wasn’t always the case. 

In the 19th century, Rosa Bonheur was the most famous woman artist in the world, an animal painter whose work was widely reproduced, especially in the United States. A copy of her most popular print, “The Horse Fair” (1852–55), even hung on the walls of the room in which Abraham Lincoln died, where it was duly reproduced in deathbed depictions of the event. Her art once inspired what the exhibition calls “Rosamania,” with reproductions “on many everyday items such as wallpaper, tea sets, and matchboxes.” In the United States little girls played with Rosa dolls — complete with short hair and pants — the way later generations would covet Shirley Temple dolls. Rosa Bonheur was an international celebrity in the modern sense.

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Ahead of her time in myriad ways, Bonheur was as known for her persona as for her paintings. She was a short-haired, smoking, hunting, independent woman in pants, who lived her life with other women and who bluntly remarked, “The fact is, in the way of males, I only like the bulls I paint.” 

Édouard Louis Dubufe, “Portrait of Rosa Bonheur” (1857)

Fame can of course be fleeting. The Musée d’Orsay’s current retrospective, Rosa Bonheur, marks the bicentenary of her birth in Bordeaux to a family of artists. Comprising some 200 works, it’s the largest exhibition of her art ever mounted, and the first major Bonheur show in Paris for 100 years. It is, in short, a kind of rehabilitation exercise for an artist who was wildly successful in her lifetime, but then overlooked — or derided — in art history’s march toward modernism. Or, as an October New York Times headline about Bonheur succinctly (if somewhat crassly) puts it, “Rich, Famous and Then Forgotten.”

To encounter Rosa Bonheur in a gallery nearly adjacent to Edvard Munch: A Poem of Live, Love and Death (September 20, 2022–January 22, 2023) is an interesting juxtaposition. While Bonheur was for so long mostly discounted and disappeared, Munch today feels almost ubiquitous, even if it is via “The Scream” emojis and endless merchandizing. To see the Munch show requires a timed ticket, while both days I visited Bonheur I strolled right in.

This isn’t the first time the two artists have been in close proximity. Though artistically worlds apart, they both attended the 1889 Paris World’s Fair and were impressed by visits to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show set up near the Bois de Boulogne as part of the fair. Only Bonheur was personally invited back by Wild West impresario William Cody. She was famous even to an American cowboy, while Munch was a Norwegian nobody.

From her Wild West visits Bonheur made more than a dozen paintings, including “Portrait of ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody” (1889), portraying a cowboy-hat-wearing Cody astride his favorite white horse. The painting became something of an American icon. Years later, when Cody heard that his Nebraska home was on fire, he telegraphed his wife to “Save the Rosa Bonheur and let the flames take the rest!” Though ostensibly a portrait of Cody, who stares over one shoulder out of the frame, it’s his muscled horse in the center of the canvas who meets the viewer’s gaze. More than just a master of animal anatomy (one reason she received official dispensation allowing her to wear pants in public was so she could sketch at slaughterhouses “unmolested”), Bonheur’s paintings radiate a rare understanding of, and sympathy with, animal intelligence. We see her horse differently because it sees us.

Rosa Bonheur, “Portrait of ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody” (1889)

While the Munch exhibition opens with his smoldering portrait of anarchist Hans Jaeger from that same year (1889) and his “Self-Portrait with Cigarette” (1895), the Bonheur show opens with a trio of portraits of her done by others, as well as a small stand with drawing paper, clip boards, and a sign that says: “Drawing with Rosa Bonheur!” This is, presumably, for children visiting the show. And yes, kids love animals, but it does set a certain light tone that’s carried throughout the exhibition, including stations to identify animal prints and the like.

For her part, Bonheur’s engagement with animals was deeply serious. Consider the “Portrait of Rosa Bonheur” (1857) by Édouard Louis Dubufe that opens the exhibition. Bonheur didn’t care for Dubufe’s original take of her leaning on a “boring table,” so with his permission she painted in a lovely bull by her side. While Dubufe depicts Bonheur looking off, expressionless and a little vacant, her bull looks directly outward, with intelligence and far more personality than Dubufe gives Bonheur.

Similarly, in the large painting that first won Bonheur financial and critical success, “Ploughing in the Nivernais” (1849), a dozen Charolais oxen are the clear heroes of the canvas. While the men driving the beasts have their features obscured by hats and shadows, a white ox near the center of the scene is so living and alert that he seems to have caught sight of us on the other side of the picture plane. And he’s not sure he likes what he sees.

From early in her long career until the end, Bonheur’s art demonstrates a grasp of animal nature beyond picturesque figures in a landscape or sentimental stand-ins for human emotion; she seems to understand animals from the inside. It is no surprise to find that she believed animals possess souls.

Rosa Bonheur, “The King of the Forest” (1878)

“The King of the Forest” (1818), a monumental painting of a stag standing between white birch trees and crowned by impressive antlers, calls to mind the colossal early medieval head of Emperor Constantine, with large and arresting eyes as windows to the soul. Both are, in fact, super weird and unsettling. But also undeniably riveting. And there’s something else in the King of the Forest’s eyes, a look that feels anxious and accusatory. It’s in this way that Bonheur, like Munch,  captures the psyche of our time, each in their own way expressing a scream through nature.

If it’s this appreciation for animals that makes Bonheur — despite her old-fashioned academic style and scale — very much of our time, so is something barely touched on in the exhibition. Bonheur openly loved women. A timeline outside the entrance describes how at age 14 she meets Nathalie Micas, “who becomes her lifelong friend.” Yes, friends who lived together for more than 40 years, until Micas’s death. And while a wall label inside describes Bonheur as “a powerful symbol for lesbian emancipation,” that “symbol” is never grounded in the facts of her life or in any way explored in her work. Bonheur, a stocky and bullish person, sometimes referred to herself as an ox (among other animals). Like animals, women of her time were most often subject to dependency, lack of freedom, restriction of movement and of choice. Yet Bonheur simply wouldn’t have it.

A photograph of her painting her canvas of Buffalo Bill shows her dressed all in black — widow’s weeds — in mourning after the death of “my Nathalie.” Then late in life she met American artist Anna Klumpke whose portrait of Bonheur hangs near the end of the show. Klumpke soon moved in with Bonheur, who died in her arms. Though Klumpke herself died 40 years later, in San Francisco, her remains are interred alongside Bonheur and Micas in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. “Friends” forever, indeed.

Anna Klumpke, “Rosa Bonheur” (1898)

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) continues at the Musée d’Orsay (Esplanade Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Paris, France) through January 15. The exhibition was curated by Sophie Barthélémy, director of the Musée des Beaux-arts de Bordeaux; Sandra Buratti-Hasan, curator, deputy director of the Musée des Beaux-arts de Bordeaux; and Leïla Jarbouai, chief curator at the Musée d’Orsay; with the collaboration of Katherine Brault, president of the Château Musée Rosa Bonheur, assisted by Michel Pons.


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