Last Summers Art Academy artists will know the story of the famous 19th Century french artist Rosa Bonheur. Women were not allowed to be artists . It was not illegal just not socially accepted. Rosa Bonheur did not let this stop her. She retired at the age of 38 having made millions from the sale of her wonderful realism paintings. She bought château outside of Paris and lived there with her girlfriend and many animals including horses, cattle and even her 3 pet lions.
When she was little her mother taught her the alphabet by allowing her to draw an animal for every letter of the alphabet on the walls of their home. She loved animals and this encouraged her when learning to read and write. Should you like to start drawing an animal for each letter of the alphabet, I have popped a few tutorial videos up on YouTube to get you started.
One of her master pieces, a giant oil painting on canvas The Horse Fair sold for the equivalent of 1.35 million euro in todays money. It is over 2 and a half metres wide.
Image Reference: (provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
The painting has a secret. Women were also not allowed to attend the horse fair and it was dangerous for them to do so. Rosa cut her hair up short and disguised herself by wear clothes that would be considered “mens clothing” at that time. This way she could get in to the horse fair and make sketches for her painting.
She even had to apply to the government for a pardon to wear trousers – after getting in trouble a few times – as it was illegal to wear trousers in France at that time if you were a women. Women were required by law to wear the floor length dress and corset you often see in period drama movies.
In a bold move Rosa even painted herself into her great Masterpiece, right in the centre, riding a horse, looking directly out at the viewer dressed in mens clothing.
The Horse Fair is available to view at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City but you need not even travel very far to see a Rosa Bonheur painting in person. Yesterday I attended a International Women’s Day tour of the National Gallery of Ireland.
During the tour we were lead by our wonderful tour guide to paintings and sculptures made by women. Now I am a big fan of the National Gallery and yet had not noticed an original Rosa Bonheur is hung there.
Image reference: National Gallery of Ireland
I think I don’t recognise it as a Rosa Bonheur in passing because it is a small painting. When I think of a Rosa Bonheur painting I tend to imagine these huge, majestic, highly accomplished, photo realistic , beautifully executed paintings of, usually, animals.
A Stag is relatively small and our tour guide Fela explained that it was painted after her retirement. She continued to paint but as she was financially so well off she didn’t need to try and impress or even paint art with a view to be sold.
She was well established as an artist by then and in 1865 Bonheur became the first woman artist to receive the cross of the Légion d’Honneur. You can see this painting in person next time you are in Dublin at The National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Square.