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May 25: The Realism of Rosa Bonheur

May 24, 2016


Realist painter Rosa Bonheur, one of the best-known women artists of the 19th century, was born in Bordeaux on this date in 1822, to a Jewish family who belonged to the socialist-Christian sect known as Saint-Simonianism. The sect encouraged the education of women, and Rosa took her place alongside her father and brothers as a painter. She was entranced by animals and studied their anatomy and behavior in pastures, veterinary schools, and slaughterhouses (which she visited disguised as a boy); she would have her first great success in 1849 with “Ploughing in the Ninervals” (above), which was commissioned by the French government. Her best-known painting is “Horse Fair” (below), 1853, 8’x16’, depicting the horse market in Paris; it is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Bonheur was decorated with the French Legion of Honour by the Empress Eugénie in 1865 and was promoted to Officer of the order in 1894. She died at 77 five years later.

“Bonheur’s best-known painting, shows the horse market held in Paris on the tree-lined Boulevard de l’Hôpital, near the asylum of Salpêtrière, which is visible in the left background. For a year and a half Bonheur sketched there twice a week, dressing as a man to discourage attention. Bonheur was well established as an animal painter when the painting debuted at the Paris Salon of 1853, where it received wide praise. In arriving at the final scheme, the artist drew inspiration from George Stubbs, Théodore Gericault, Eugène Delacroix, and ancient Greek sculpture: she referred to The Horse Fair as her own ‘Parthenon frieze.’ ” —The Met