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Rosa Bonheur

Born: Bordeaux, 16 March 1822
Died: Thomery, 25 May 1899
Nationality: French

daughter of artist Raymond Bonheur


with father


1841 – first Paris Salon exhibition; exhibits regularly until 1855

1848 – French government commissions Ploughing in the Nivernais

1850s –The Horse Fair tours Great Britain and the US

1860 – moves to Château de By near Fontainebleau forest; Buffalo Bill Cody and Eugenie (Empress of France) are guests

1865 –first woman awarded the Légion d’honneur

1887 – Cornelius Vanderbilt purchases The Horse Fair for £53,000 and donates it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)


Rome (1822-24)

Commissions from: 

French government

Important Artworks: 

Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)



In the 21st century, it's difficult to imagine that as late as the 1970s, girls attending public school in the U.S. were forbidden from wearing pants. During the reign of Napoleon, a law was passed forbidding women from wearing pants, except for costumes worn during during pre-Lentan carnivals. Bonheur successfully petitioned the police to wear pants in the 1850s for work-related reasons (visits to slaughterhouses and animal fairs).

"Enforced throughout the entire century, the decree was apparently applied with particular rigor in the early years of the Third Republic [beginning in 1871]...It was in this period that feminists...began reasserting themselves in conspicuous groups. At the same time, the medical establishment was beginning to theorize the 'perversions' of female cross-dressing and lesbianism...[A]ny woman caught in trousers twice in the same year risked being fined and jailed."

"Throughout her life, Rosa Bonheur demonstrated her feminist concerns by endeavoring to lift the heavy burdens that bore down upon women, preventing them from entering professional spheres and conducting their lives with dignity and autonomy."

Gretchen van Slyke, "The Sexual and Textual Politics of Dress: Rosa Bonheur and Her Cross-Dressing Permits," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, vol. 26, no.3-4 (Spring-Summer 1998): 212; 331.


A contemporary visitor to Bonheur's rue d'Assas studio in Paris described the experience: 

"A part of the garden is laid out in flower-brdfs; but the greater portion of given up to the animals kept by the artist as her models; an honor shared at the present time by a horse, a donkey, four or five goats and sheep of different breeds, ducks, cochin-chinas, and other denizens of the barn-yard, who live together in perfect amity and good will...[W]e are ushered through glass doors into a hall...a few stairs...bring us to the atelier, which on Fridays is turned into a reception-room...Paintings of all sizes and in every stage of progress, are seen on easels at the lower end of the room, our artist always working on several at a time. Stands of portfolios, and stacks of canvas line the sides of the studio; birds are chirping in cages of various dimensions...Scattered over the floor...are skins of tigers, oxen, leopards, and foxes; the only species of floor-covering admitted by the artist into her workroom. 'They give me ideas,' she says of these favorite appurtenances, 'whereas the most costly and luxurious carpet is suggestive of nothing.' Such is the 'whereabout' in which Rosa Bonheur receives her guests, with the frankness, kindness, and unaffected simplicity for which she is so eminently distinguished."

 Anonymous, “Rosa Bonheur,” Cosmopolitan Art Journal, vol. 2, no. 4 (September 1858): 194.