Woman of the Day – Rosa Bonheur

Green Party Women Celebrating Women’s History Month
Day 16: Woman of the Day, Rosa Bonheur

Rosa Bonheur was born on March 16, 1822, in Bordeaux, France. She was a trailblazing artist known for her remarkable talent in animal painting and her unconventional life in the male-dominated art world of the 19th century. Her pioneering spirit paved the way for future generations of female artists and animal rights activists.

Rosa was born into a family with a passion for art. Her father, Raymond Bonheur, was a painter, and he recognised Rosa’s talent early on. Rosa began drawing and studying animals at a young age. At school she was often disruptive and was expelled numerous times. After a failed apprenticeship as a seamstress at the age of twelve, her father decided to train her as a painter and allowed her to pursue her interest in painting animals by bringing live animals to the family’s studio for studying.

Artistic career

Rosa’s talent flourished, and she gained recognition for her ability to capture the essence and spirit of animals in her paintings. She broke societal norms by pursuing a career as a professional artist, a path typically reserved for men in the 19th century. In 1841, at the age of 19, she exhibited her work at the prestigious Paris Salon for the first time, receiving critical acclaim.

Her breakthrough came with the painting Ploughing in the Nivernais which depicted oxen at work. The piece garnered widespread praise and earned her a gold medal at the Salon in 1849, making her the first woman to receive such an honour.

Painting Ploughing in the Nivernais by Rosa Bonheur  depicting several oxen ploughing a field

Rosa’s success continued to grow, and she gained international recognition for her realistic and emotionally compelling animal paintings. Her most famous work, The Horse Fair was completed in 1853, and remains an iconic piece of art, capturing the energy and power of horses at a market in Paris.

Painting The Horsefair by Rosa Bonheur  depicting several horses at a horse fair

Despite her dedication to her art, Rosa faced numerous challenges as a woman in the art world. She was fiercely independent and refused to conform to societal expectations of femininity. She chose to dress in men’s clothing, which was unconventional for the time and illegal. Until 2013 women in France were technically forbidden from wearing trousers by the “Decree concerning the cross-dressing of women” which was implemented on 17 November 1800.

Personal life and animal rights advocacy

Rosa was also a lesbian who lived openly with her female partner, Nathalie Micas, whom she referred to as her “sister”.

In addition to her artistic pursuits, Rosa was a passionate advocate for animal rights and welfare. She maintained a menagerie of animals at her home and often used them as models for her paintings. Her love for animals extended beyond her art, and she actively supported organisations dedicated to their protection.

Rosa passed away on May 25, 1899, leaving behind a rich legacy of artistic achievement. Today, her paintings are celebrated for their beauty and emotional depth, and her life continues to inspire other artists and activists around the world.

“… I owe my great and glorious ambition for the sex to which I proudly belong and whose independence I shall defend until my dying day.”






Images – all images are in the public domain.

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