Rosa Bonheur was a French painter and sculptor. She is famous for the realism of her works. She was an “animalière”, which means a painter of animals. Bonheur is widely considered as the most famous female painter during the 19th century.
Rosa Bonheur was born in Bordeaux (1822) in a family of artists. Her mother was a piano teacher and her father painter of landscapes and portraits. He encouraged his daughter to develop her artistic talents. Even though of Jewish origin, her family adhered to a Christian-socialist sect, the Saint-Simonianism, which promoted the education of women alongside men.
The family moved to Paris in 1828. Bonheur had difficult learning to read and before she could talk, she would sketch with pencil and paper. She learnt to read with the help of her mother, who asked her to choose and draw a different animal for each letter of the alphabet. It is believed that her love for animals and for drawing them has to do with these reading lessons with her mother.
At the age of twelve her father undertook to train her as a painter. Following the traditional curriculum of art schools of the time, she began her training by copying images from drawing books and by sketching plaster models. Her father allowed her to pursue her interest in painting animals by bringing live animals to the family’s studio, so she could study them. She also sketched animals she could find in the open fields of Villiers (near to Paris). At the age of fourteen she began to copy paintings at the Musée du Louvre. Among the artists she admired was Nicholas Poussin and Rubens.
She studied animal anatomy and osteology in the abattoirs of Paris and by dissecting animals in the National Veterinary Institute where she prepared very detailed studies that she would use later as references for paintings and sculptures.
Ploughing in the Nivernais was commissioned by French government and it was her first great success, exhibited in 1849 and now in the Musée d’Orsay. But her most famous work is The Horse Fair completed in 1855, it depicts the horse market held in Paris. There is a reduced version of this work in the National Gallery of London.
Although Bonheur was more popular in England than in France, she received the French Legion of Honour by the Empress Eugénie in 1865, being promoted to Officer of the order in 1894, she was the first female artist to reach this grade.