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Rosa Bonheur (Marie Rosalie)
(French, 1822 -1899 )

Rosalie Maria Bonheur, or Rosa as she was called, was born in Bordeaux on March 16, 1822. Her father, Oscar Raymond Bonheur, was a painter who, in his youth, had won the highest honors at art exhibitions in his hometown.

The eldest of four children, Rosa was an active and rambunctious child who disliked studying and being disciplined. But as much as she detested formal studies, she adored nature and seemed happiest when paying attention to animals or meandering through the woods. She also liked to amuse herself in her father's studio, drawing rough sketches on the walls, or putting her little hands in clay and forming models or cutting out paper figures. "Before I was four years old I already had a passion for drawing," she has said, "and I covered the white walls as high as I could reach with my shapeless sketches. What amused me also was to cut out subjects, they were always the same. To begin with I made long ribbons, then with my scissors I used to cut out, first a shepherd, then a dog, then a calf, then a sheep, then a tree, invariably in the same order."

In 1828 Raymond Bonheur left Bordeaux and went to Paris to establish a studio there. The rest of the family joined him in Paris the following year. It was the time of social and political unrest that preceded the revolution; Bonheur found that he could not sell his paintings and had to resort to giving drawing lessons to support his family that was in dire circumstances. Frustrated more than ever at what to do with Rosa, her father decided to leave her completely to herself for a time. She found solace in her father's studio where she drew and modeled from morning till night with great enthusiasm. Her father, amazed at her progress, and recognizing her artistic nature at last, began to formally instruct her.

Bonheur sent Rosa to the Louvre to copy the works of the old masters. There, surrounded and stimulated by the creations of the great painters, she became engrossed in studying the different techniques and sketching the statuary.
Dedicating her life to art, Rosa, at first, was equally attracted toward painting and sculpture. As the Bonheur family lived on the edge of poverty, Rosa had no money to obtain models, so she went to the country every day to search for animals and pastoral scenes to sketch. The Bonheur family soon relocated to small quarters on the rue Rumford in the Parisian suburbs, where they had a studio on the sixth floor above their apartment. The neighborhood was near the countryside and gave Rosa extensive opportunities to study animals. The two Bonheur sons also devoted themselves to art, Isadore being a sculptor and Auguste being a painter. From dawn to dusk, Rosa worked diligently in the studio, beside her father and two brothers, mastering her artistic skills and style.

In addition to the animals outdoors, the Bonheurs maintained a small "barnyard" in the studio itself, housing several breeds of dogs, birds, rabbits, ducks, a squirrel and a sheep. The sheep was kept on a terrace outside the studio window, as it was unable to descend or ascend the six flights of stairs, Isadore would carry it downstairs on his shoulders so that it could graze on fresh grass in a neighboring field, then carry it back upstairs.

In 1841, at the age of eighteen, Rosa decided that she was ready to exhibit her work at the Paris Salon, the huge exhibitions that were held biennially. The Salon was the only outlet for young painters to show their work and be deemed acceptable to collectors, if they could get in. It was rare for a newcomer's submission to be welcomed. Rosa submitted two studies, one entitled "Two Pet Rabbits Nibbling Carrots" and the other, "Sheep and Dogs", which were not only accepted but also which attracted the favorable notice of both the tribunal and the public. The following year she exhibited three paintings that garnered still more praise. From this time and for many years following, Rosa Bonheur exhibited animal studies and landscapes in the Paris Salons and those of the provincial towns. Her reputation and popularity increased every year, several medals were awarded to her work, and all her paintings were sold.

It was at this time that Rosa Bonheur started to frequent the horse fairs and cattle markets in Paris in preparation for the group paintings of animals she was planning. This environment was no better than the slaughterhouse for a solitary young woman. On these occasions, so that she could casually mingle with the crowd, which was totally masculine, she disguised herself by dressing in men's clothing. With her dark brown hair bobbed short and parted to the side and garbed in blue linen shirt and woolen trousers, her general demeanor was such that most of the people who met her actually thought that she was a man.

Artistic fates were decided at the Paris Salon. The jury's award to "The Horse Fair" in 1853 entitled Rosa, according to French usage, to the Cross of the Legion d'Honneur. Because she was a woman, however, the emperor refused to grant her the decoration. Even though Rosa was invited to the state dinner at the Tuileries, an honor always bestowed upon the artists who win the Salon's top awards, the refusal of the decoration was maintained.

After the immediate and great success of the "The Horse Fair", Rosa Bonheur moved to the Rue d'Assas, where she occupied the entire house including the courtyard and garden. In 1858, Rosa Bonheur bought an estate in the county seat of By (pronounced Bee), on the border of the Forest of Fontainbleau. She took up residence in the Chateau and built a large studio there.

A painter of animals could not have chosen a better location. Deer, wild boar and other animals roamed free in the great forest and provided her with every opportunity for studying the subjects she wanted to paint in their natural surroundings. Her estate was so large that there was abundant room to keep and care for many kinds of wild and domestic animals that also could be used as models. Her menagerie included dogs of many different breeds, goats, sheep, gazelles, deer, horses, bulls, cows, wild boars, lions, monkeys, a yak, squirrels, ferrets, and eagle and other species of birds.

In this peaceful haven, surrounded by the animals she loved, Rosa Bonheur spent the remainder of her life completely absorbed in her art. She submitted no pictures to the French Salon for many years, although her works were occasionally exhibited at different expositions, and her time was fully occupied in executing the profusion of commissions that came to her, many of them from England and America. Her reputation was indeed international and collectors competed against each other in their efforts to obtain her works. She enjoyed the friendship and patronage of Queen Victoria and this made her work very fashionable and desirable to the British upper classes.


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