Artistic Throwback or Feminist Pioneer?
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Published in: July-August 2021 issue.


The Unconventional Life of Rosa Bonheur
by Catherine Hewitt
Icon Books. 483 pages, $36.59



BY THE TIME animal painter Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) died, she had been one of the most famous and financially successful establishment artists in France for half a century. Railway tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt had bought the canvas regarded as her masterpiece, the 8’ x 16’ Horse Fair in Paris (1853), for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wealthy collectors on both sides of the Atlantic had regularly commissioned canvases from her.

            While her fame was due mostly to the photographic precision of her art, Bonheur also intrigued some people by wearing pants while working in her studio and with the animals she kept as models on her estate outside Paris. She told her sister: “It amuses me to see how puzzled the people are” by her male attire. But she assured the mother of a friend that “it was a practical rather than a principled choice.” When summoned by Queen Victoria (a great admirer) or other dignitaries, she delighted in wearing elegant dresses.

            In the 120 years since her death, museums have put most of her works in storage, and Bonheur is remembered more for her eccentricities than for her art.

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Richard M. Berrong, professor emeritus of French literature at Kent State University, is the author of Pierre Loti (2018) and a series of documentary films on daily life in Brittany during World War II.