THERE ARE FEW success stories of the 19th century comparable to the life and good fortunes of Rosa Bonheur. Hers is remarkable when one considers that she was born into a distressingly poor family. Her father was a professional painter but also a fanatic follower of the socialist-revolutionary Saint Simon. According to some conjectures the Bonheurs were Jews from Bordeaux; and Rosa was a lesbian who lived her private life not liking men. Yet through her paintings and engravings Rosa Bonheur probably earned as much money, if not more than such highly prosperous painters as Frederic Church or Sir Edwin Landseer. She became the proud possessor of the Chateau de By and handsomely supported a farm, a menagerie, and relatives.
How did such a phenomenon occur? Not only were women of her epoch struggling to be regarded as responsible adults, but if they chose to be painters (and there were only a few), how difficult to receive attention from the male dominated art world? Dore Ashton and Denise Hare have attempted to explain -- Ashton with a meticulously researched text and Hare with her extraordinary photographs and newly discovered illustrative material including engravings, documents, old photographs, reproductions of Bonheur's paintings and drawings.
Being the daughter of am impecunious painter and ardent radical was not all bad. Raimond Bonheur was far to the left politically, but as an artist, he adhered closely to the conservative, neo-classic doctrines of his teacher, Pierre Lacour, a devoted follower of David. The four Bonheur children were carefully trained by their father to be artists, and Rosa, by far the most skilled, was encouraged to specialize in painting what she loved: creatures furred and feathered. Bonheur pere also inculcated in his children the belief that women were men's social equals. Rosa's preference for male clothing was not discouraged, and she successfully obtained from the police a permission de travestissement allowing her to wear men's attire. The certificate had to be renewed every six months and countersigned by her doctor since the permit was "issued for reasons of health." However, the restriction made it clear that she was not "to attend spectacles, balls, or other public gatherings." Rosa's interest in other Saint Simonian socialist, religious tenets went no further.
When Louis Napoleon made himself emperor in 1851 and set up the Third Republic, a new style of bourgeois self-congratulation and prosperity became universal. Rosa Bonheur's particular form of conservative, backward-looking art was perfectly suited to the times. She owed much to Gericault and later, Landseer. When The Horse Fair was exhibited at the Salon in 1853 it became an instant favorite with art-going public, and its popularity continued for several decades. The painting was exhibited widely, always to big crowds of viewers and eventually was bought by Cornelius Vanderbilt for $53,000 and donated to the Metropolitan Museum.
But for all her industry, Rosa Bonheur did not care for nor mix with her contemporary fellow artists. The Barbizon painters, for instance, though located not far away on the other side of the Fontainebleau Forest, bored her. Nor did she have any use for the Impressionists; in her opinion their canvasses were a mess. What Rosa enjoyed were animals, her women friends, high society, and making lots of money. She kept a menagerie of motley birds and beasts on the grounds of her chateau, including Fatham, her pet lionness who "followed her everywhere like a pet poodle." Nathalie Micas and Rosa enjoyed a life-long intimacy and happily, after Nathalie died, the American painter Anna Klumpke came to live with Rosa at By. (The ashes of all three are buried in the same crypt at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.) As for high society, Rosa went all the way to the top. The Empress Eugenie called upon her twice, the second time presenting her the Legion of Honor. In England, Queen Victoria requested a private viewing of The Horse Fair at Windsor Castle. Rosa made a grand tour of England and Scotland, attended by the luminaries of the aristocracy and art milieu. Later she was taken up by American millionaires and became the warm friend of Col. William Cody. "Buffalo Bill" had brought his spectacular Wild West Show to Paris and Rosa went every day to sketch Sioux Indians, mustangs, cowboys and buffaloes. Her equestrian portrait of the Colonel hangs in the museum at Cody, Wyoming.
In her later years Bonheur was considered passe by the French public and critics, but the Americans and British remained worshipful. One suspects Rosa was only slightly disturbed by the indifference of her countrymen. After all, what she really cared for was having a wonderful life. Dore Ashton and Denise Hare have evoked delightfully that life and career. They have also been juste in evaluating what Bonheur did well: her remarkable studies, drawings, sketches of animals and birds which are both scientific in observation and elegant in execution. The book is handsomely printed, and the illustrations follow the text closely. There is a useful chronology, bibliography and index.