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the incredible life of Rosa Bonheur, animal painter turned feminist icon

She was both a wildly free figure and an immense celebrity of the 19th century. Two hundred years after her birth, the work and the extraordinary existence of the animal painter are celebrated at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, before the Musée d’Orsay in October.

For the young Marie Rosalie Bonheur (1822-1899), known as Rosa Bonheur, passionate about animals since childhood, nothing could be more normal than to install a goat on the balcony of one of the Parisian dwellings where the bohemian life of his family of artists. One could also find there a squirrel making ramdam at night and a whole company with hair or feathers, housed between the loft and the backyard of the home of this sibling of four, plus the father, widower, originally from Bordeaux and settled in Paris in 1829. From the start, the menagerie was the “living stock” from the most famous animal artist of the 19th centuryand century. Her own models, unlike those of her father, a portrait painter, climb on all fours up the stairs to pose, then come back down to graze in the meadows.

To study anatomy, she goes to observe the carcasses at the Roule slaughterhouse, shoes and skirts soaking in rivulets of blood. This will push her to adopt trousers, the wearing of which, then forbidden to women, was granted by the police headquarters against medical certificate, to be renewed every six months! At less than 20 years old, the young girl exhibited for the first time at the Salon. Somewhat naive rabbits, then more seasoned calves, cows, his favorite beasts, and sheep. She quickly won medals and successes and was able to rent her own workshop, shared with her friend Nathalie Micas.

A hard worker

The two women met when they were teenagers and did not part until Nathalie’s death in 1889, after forty years together. With the money from her first sale, the young Rosa acquired her margot Margot, with whom she travels the countryside around Paris to work on the pattern. Nathalie and she will regularly criss-cross France, notably the Auvergne and the Pyrenees, where the sheep and cattle caught on the spot in the steep rocks are returned in very small or very large formats, creating a feeling of movement, between traveling and large plan.

On horseback, Rosa Bonheur, once she had become rich and famous, would also roam the forest paths of Fontainebleau every day, where she acquired a castle in 1859. She set up enclosures there for her proteges – we counted up to two hundred, from the most familiar to the most exotic, such as monkeys or lions. The artist, a hard worker, lived in voluntary semi-reclusion until her death, watched over by her last companion, the American painter Anna Klumpke, whom she made her universal legatee and to whom she entrusted the writing of her Memoirs.

From poor childhood, marked by the tragic loss of her mother, who died of exhaustion at the age of 36, to her phenomenal success all the way to America, Rosa Bonheur’s entire life is extraordinary. She is the first woman artist decorated with the Legion of Honor, by Empress Eugénie in person. Single, therefore not subject to the guardianship of a man, as provided for in the Civil Code, she lives surrounded only by women: her companion, also an artist, who manages her career as an impresario, and her mother, figure surrogate mother reigning over the household.

A world famous

In the 1850s, with the success of his horse market (1855), an impressive cavalcade of Percherons that the grooms struggled to contain, exhibited during a triumphant tour of Europe before being sold for an astronomical price in the United States, the painter no longer needed to exhibit at the Salon. His agents in France and England ensured him fame and definitive prosperity, backed up by promotional tours, particularly in England, and “by-products” – widely distributed engravings or fictionalized biographies.

The centerpiece of the painter’s work, the monumental painting “The Horse Market” (1855) is kept at the Met, in New York.

The National Gallery Photography

Feminist, independent, homosexual — nothing proves it, but everything in the image she takes on says it naturally — Rosa Bonheur arrives too early in her time to claim her way of life loud and clear, like Colette and others will do so later. She remains discreet, but breathes this freedom into her art, freed from conventions despite classic approaches. Looking closely, in fact, under the smooth and polished touch of his academic-looking works, nothing is codified, everything is truthful, the fruit of the relentless study of animals in the field to restore them in their singularity. . Muddy sheep or horse with hollow flanks, they are larger than life and all different. Never again did the artist, who militates for the animal cause and was one of the first members of the SPA, cast a sentimentalist or anthropocentric gaze on his animals. They remain in their place of animals and convey no human message.

In 1849, aged 27, Rosa Bonheur achieved her first great success with her “Labourage nivernais”.

In 1849, aged 27, Rosa Bonheur achieved her first great success with her “Labourage nivernais”.

Patrice Schmidt

Every detail must be accurately documented. So she had grass sent from the great American plains to paint the bison in their element from the Buffalo Bill show, met at the 1889 World’s Fair. For the Americans, who adored him, the artist represented the soul of animals and wide open spaces; for the French, the substantial land of their ancestors. In Nivernais Plowing or Sombrage (1849), a choice piece kept at the Musée d’Orsay, two teams of six Charolais and Nivernais bullocks pass by, powerful as aurochs, turning over the nourishing earth. The breed of roux, placed in third position, called morvandelle, died out more than a century ago. Remains his image, immortalized by the artist to the hair. Cézanne, on discovering the canvas, exclaimed: “It is horribly similar! » Fortunately, finally.

A preserved refuge

In 1859, tired of being constantly solicited by curious people knocking on the door of his Parisian studio, rue d’Assas, for him “get autographs” Rosa Bonheur therefore moved to the Château de By, in the village of Thomery, a few kilometers from Fontainebleau. When he died in May 1899, his last companion, Anna Klumpke, inherited it and did everything to preserve the memory of the artist. In vain: in the century of Picasso the Minotaur, Rosa Bonheur’s cows went to reserves. In 1942, after the disappearance of Anna Klumpke, the castle went to her descendants, who kept it in joint possession until the 2000s, without major transformations. In the workshop, everything stays as it is: cigarette butts in the ashtray or blouse on the back of an armchair…

In 2005, the domain is on sale. A defense association is created, with the hope that the workshop will be registered as a historical monument to protect it. Nothing is done, neither the protection nor the sale. In 2014, the owners put it back on the market. The Ministry of Culture, contacted, does not take the measure of the heritage importance of the place, rare testimony of a workshop of a woman artist in the 19thand century remained as it was, with unsuspected archives full of attics, unfinished paintings, drawings and hundreds of photographs.

The Château de By will finally be acquired in 2017 by Katherine Brault, a businesswoman from Fontainebleau, who came from the communication sector. Aided by various sponsorships and subsidies, including 500,000 euros from the Loto du Patrimoine, she embarked on a high-end hotel project, associated with a museum section, with guided tour of the workshop and adjacent rooms. She bought everything except, for lack of funding, the workshop’s collection as well as a Lakota Indian outfit, which the owners sold in separate lots.

Ministry of Culture, regional council of Île-de-France and department of Seine-et-Marne will acquire it in 2021 for nearly 900,000 euros. This unprecedented operation makes the Château de By the one and only private museum in France, without a curator, to house a public collection within its walls. Daring editing that the public authorities justify by the need to safeguard the spirit of the place and to make known this artist whose personality shakes up genres, and the painting deserves to be seen.

Our special issue
If Rosa Bonheur preceded the Impressionists by around ten years, her posterity lags a good century behind the sacred monsters. Few books have been devoted to him, few works are visible in museums; the last major exhibition, organized in Bordeaux, dates back twenty-five years. The same Museum of Fine Arts, associated with that of Orsay, offers a large retrospective to revisit the myth of the “painter of cows”. The special issue Rosa Happiness of Telerama accompanies it, welcoming in its pages its faithful models with four or two legs, feathers or fur, passed under the brush of this extraordinary artist who preferred the company of animals to that of her fellow humans. We discover his childhood like no other, his fascination for wild animals, the impeccable promotion of his work in Anglo-Saxon countries or even the place of animal art in his century.
On newsstands, 82 p., €9.90.

To have
“Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899)”, until September 18 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bordeaux, And from October 18 to January 15 at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Catalog: coed. Flammarion/Musée d’Orsay, 288 pages, €45.

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