Rosa Bonheur: A life and a Legend by Dore Ashton
Published by Secker & Warburg, London 1981
Reviewed by MICHAEL DUNN
'The fact is, in the way of males, I like only the bulls I paint' avowed Rosa Bonheur to a family friend. Bonheur, well-known in nineteenth century France, Britain and America as an animal painter, emerges from the pages of Dore Ashton's book as a lady who wore the pants literally, toted a gun as well as a paintbrush and liked nothing better than a spot of hunting in time out from her easel. From an early age she preferred to dress in mens' attire so that she could gain access to stables and animal saleyards to make sketches of the horses, cattle and goats she liked to paint. In later life, when she was an established artist, living with her lover Nathalie Micas, she scarcely bothered to disguise her lesbian lifestyle and had a permit that gave her the right to dress as a male 'for reasons of health'.
In some ways, Rosa Bonheur's life is more interesting than her rather unremarkable artistic achievements: which is possibly why Dore Ashton devotes comparatively little time to Bonheur's art. Ashton observes, ' in her smooth flowing and entertaining text, that Rosa Bonheur never had much success with the French art critics, apart from her early triumph with The Horse Fair. John Ruskin was not prepared to accept even that painting without severe reservations: 'No painter of animals ever yet was entirely great who shrank from painting the human face; and Mdlle. Bonheur does shrink from it . . . in The Horse Fair the human faces were nearly all dexterously, but disagreeably, hidden, and the one chiefly shown had not the slightest character. Mdlle. Bonheur may rely upon this, that if she cannot paint a man's face, she can neither paint a horse's or a dog's or a bull's.' But Bonheur, as with many successful artists before and since, depended little on the acclaim of critics; she could count on the enthusiastic but uninformed taste of collectors such as Queen Victoria to make her fortune. The rich and famous beat a path to her door.
Bonheur is a phenomenon - like such predecessors as Angelica Kauffmann - a lady artist who achieved fame in a field dominated by male painters. She was the daughter of a painter and had brothers and sisters who were also artists. But she far surpassed their meagre talents. She made her reputation early with her undoubted masterpiece, The Horse Fair, 1853, a huge painting now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Painted with flair, and made dramatic by bold effects of light and dark on the flanks of the huge animals, the picture asked for attention and got it - not least because it was painted by a young lady. In this picture, Bonheur's close study of horses pursued in numerous sketches enabled her to draw the animals with fire and energy. They rear up, tug at their reins, paw the ground and exhibit raw animal passion. As Ashton points out, the ideas behind the picture derive from the horse studies of the great French Romantic artist, Gericault. From him, too, she seems to have derived something of the breadth of handling in this canvas.
Subsequently her inspiration seems to have lapsed. Whether it was too close a study of the dry English approach to sporting art (as Ashton suggests), or whether it was simply a lack of true genius is hard to say. Bonheur withdrew into a world away from the critics and public exhibitions; there she painted for the wealthy patrons who made her rich. Her money enabled her to buy a chateau near Fontainebleau, where she had a spacious studio and a private zoo of animals - including monkeys as well as the horses, cattle, goats and sheep she kept by the dozen. Her fame, and her popularity at the French Court, gave her privileges, such as shooting rights in the Fontainebleau Forest.
Late in her career she succumbed to the appeal of the Wild West and the Redskins, introduced to her in the showmanship of Buffalo Bill Cody's travelling Wild West Show. Her paintings of buffalo on the prairies, and of Cody himself mounted on horseback, catered to public demand and added to her overflowing coffers even more wealth: even if they did little for her reputation as an artist. Although she lived on into the age of Impressionism, she did nothing to change her style of dark, dry, detailed painting. She lacked not only a feeling for the human figure, but also for the landscapes she introduced into her pictures with all the conviction of a nineteenth century photographer's backdrop. Even the most determined promoter of lady artists will not be able to claim much distinction for her as an innovator.
After her death in 1899, Rosa Bonheur's popular reputation declined. Today, the Bonheur galleries at Fontainebleau are closed to the public. Her monument, a large prancing bull cast in bronze, was destroyed by the Nazis in a rare show of good taste. It is doubtful if Bonheur ranks as highly as Landseer, an artist whom she greatly admired. But she deserves attention for determination to succeed in a man's sphere, and admiration for her unorthodox lifestyle in the face of the restrictive world in which she grew up.