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Rosa Bonheur

French Animal Painter
1822 - 1899


Rosa (Marie Rosalie) Bonheur was born March 16th 1822 in Bordeaux, France. She is widely acclaimed as an animal painter and was influenced by the work of the English artist, Landseer. 

Rosa Bonheur was one of the most renowned animal painters in history. Her earliest training was received from her father, a minor landscape painter, who encouraged her interest in art in general and in animals as her exclusive subject. He allowed her to keep a veritable menagerie in their home, including a sheep that is reported to have lived on the balcony of their sixth-floor Parisian apartment.

Bonheur's unconventional lifestyle contributed to the myth that surrounded her during her lifetime. She smoked cigarettes in public, rode astride, and wore her hair short. To study the anatomy of animals, Bonheur visited the slaughterhouse; for this work, she favored men's attire and was required to obtain an official authorization from the police to dress in trousers and a smock.

While radical in her personal life, Bonheur was artistically conservative. Henri Cain would later recall that she "was not only an exceedingly intelligent artist, but a very conscientious and hard-working one....She believed in honesty in art and ever desired to keep very close to nature." Bonheur's reputation grew steadily in the 1840's; she exhibited her animal paintings and sculptures at the Paris Salon regularly from 1841 to 1853. The Salons tended to support traditional styles, and most artists still sought to exhibit at the annual shows, as it was the primary way for their work to be seen by the public. In 1845 Bonheur won a third prize and in 1848 a gold medal.

Because of this recognition from official sources, she was then awarded a commission from the French government to produce a painting on the subject of plowing. Plowing in Nivernais, exhibited at the Salon of 1849, firmly established her career in France. Bonheur later won international acclaim with her life size painting The Horse Fair exhibited at the 1853 Salon.

Bonheur's popularity in England was assured after two versions of The Horse Fair were exhibited there, and Queen Victoria ordered a private viewing of the original at Windsor Castle. The artist's chief source of revenue in the 1860s and 1870s came from sales in England rather than from her native France. In 1894 she was the first woman to receive the Grand Cross of the French Legion of Honor.

Sheep by the Sea illustrates Bonheur's lifelong interest in portraying farm animals in a straightforward manner, reinforcing her commitment to direct observation from nature. She has captured the essence of a flock of domestic sheep--calm, undisturbed, and complacent--settled in a meadow on the edge of a body of water.

The Horse Fair (1835-55) and Weaning the Calves (1887) are both in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.


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