Rosa Bonheur

On this date in 1822, painter Marie-Rosalie Bonheur was born in Bordeaux, France, to a nominally Jewish family. All four children in the family became artists. Inspired by George Sand, with whom she was philosophically attuned, Bonheur started dressing in boys’ clothes in order to study animal anatomy, a sartorial habit of freedom she never abandoned. She visited slaughterhouses and also sketched at the horse market. Her painting, The Horse Fair, 1853, made her an international celebrity.

Bonheur was known for her unsentimental and realistic renderings of animals. She was exhibited regularly at Paris salons and became the first woman to receive the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor. She had two female partners. She grew up with Nathalie Micas and then lived with her for 40 years. The American portraitist Anna Klumpke came into her life after Micas died. Bonheur viewed womanhood as superior to anything a man could offer or experience and said the only males she had time for were the bulls she painted.

Georges Cain, a painter and contemporary of Bonheur, wrote that she was “a philosopher of pantheist leanings. These ideas she was able to reconcile with a deep reverence for the Divine and a hatred for what she called ‘the Jesuits.’ By birth a Catholic, she neglected all outward religious observance.”

In her will dated Nov. 9, 1898, she directed that she wanted no priest at her deathbed but in order to be buried with Micas, agreed to forgo a civil funeral if need be, Bonheur told Klumpke shortly before she died at age 77.  The three of them are buried alongside each other in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Bonheur’s painting “Monarchs of the Forest” sold at auction in 2008 for just over $200,000. (D. 1899)

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