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The French artist who defied gender norms in the 1800s

May 25, On This Day  


A French artist known best as a painter of animals (or animalière) and also sculptor in a realist style, Rosa Bonheur was born on March 16, 1822, and passed away at age 77 on May 25, 1899 — 123 years ago from today.

Some consider her the most famous female painter of the 19th century.

Bonheur was openly lesbian and lived with partner Nathalie Micas for over four decades until the latter’s passing. After this, she began a relationship with American painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke.

She grew up the oldest child in a family of artists. By family accounts, she had been an unruly child and had a difficult time learning to read, although she would sketch for hours before she learned to talk. Her mother, a piano teacher (who passed away when Bonheur was but 11) taught her to read and write by asking her to choose and draw a different animal for each letter of the alphabet. The artist reportedly credited her love of drawing animals to these reading lessons with her mother.  

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Her father, a landscape and portrait painter, is also said to have encouraged his daughter’s artistic talents. Bonheur began her training by copying images from drawing books and sketching plaster models. She also made studies of domesticated animals, including horses, sheep, cows, goats, rabbits and other animals in the pastures, open fields and the wilderness.

Interestingly, Bonheur also studied animal anatomy and osteology in the abattoirs of Paris and dissected animals at the École nationale vétérinaire d’Alfort (National Veterinary Institute in Paris). Here, she also prepared detailed studies that she later used as references for her paintings and sculptures. Perhaps her incredibly realistic artworks have this scientific perspective.

At a time when lesbianism was regarded as a huge taboo, Bonheur’s outspokenness about her personal life was groundbreaking. Bonheur was known for wearing men’s clothing and attributed her choice of trousers to their practicality for working with animals.

It is reported that: “She did not do this because she wanted to be a man, though she occasionally referred to herself as a grandson or brother when talking about her family; rather, she identified with the power and freedom reserved for men.”  

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But while taking pleasure in activities usually reserved for men of the time (hunting, smoking), Bonheur also viewed her womanhood as something far superior to anything a man could offer or experience. It is said that she viewed men as stupid and mentioned that the only males she had time or attention for were the bulls she painted.

Bonheur, it is chronicled, had her partners focus on home life while she took on the role of breadwinner by focusing on her painting.  


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