Painter of Bovine Poetry : Notes on Rosa Bonheur

Detail of Bonheur’s “Plowing in the Nivernais (Labourages nivernais)” c. 1850. Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida. Author photo of work in public domain.

What question is the white ox asking us?

French artist Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) painted this scene as though we, the viewers, have distracted this lovely animal at its work.

Unlike its companions, this ox stares out at us. Bonheur gives the other animals in this painting a more resigned or relaxed look, depending on what you see. In contrast, there’s nothing much to see in the faces of the human figures in the painting.

Details of Bonheur’s “Plowing in the Nivernais (Labourages nivernais)” c. 1850. Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida. Author photo of work in public domain.

Bonheur is known for her tender depictions of animals, as seen in this painting. According to the Ringling Museum, it’s a copy made by Bonheur herself of the original version, now housed at the Musée d’Orsay. The original painting won Bonheur a medal and helped make her one of the more popular painters the United States and the United Kingdom in the late 19th century.

Bonheur’s “Plowing in the Nivernais (Labourages nivernais)” c. 1850. Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida. Author photo of work in public domain.

Note how in the painting below, the magnificent Alps are only a backdrop for Bonheur’s cows at rest.

Bonheur, “Cattle at Rest on a Hillside in the Alps,” 1885. Art Institute of Chicago.
A. A. Munger Collection. Image from AIC website, providing with CCO public domain designation. (Thanks, AIC)

Bonheur painted the pretty sheep as well, as seen below with the dramatic Scottish landscape serving as a backdrop.

Bonheur, “Sheep by the Sea,” 1865; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Bonheur also painted horses and dogs and deer and even boars. But she had a special affinity for cattle.

Bonheur, “Wild Boars in the Snow,” c. 1872–1877. Cleveland Museum of Art. Bequest of Noah L. Butkin.

Below she is depicted in an 1857 portrait. With the permission of the portrait painter Édouard Dubufe, Bonheur herself painted in this companion bull where he first placed a table, according to a 2020 Smithsonian article.

Dubufe, Édouard and Rosa Bonheur. Portrait of Bonheur, 1857. Wikipedia copy of image in public domain.

Bonheur’s choice of animals as her subjects led her to visit pastures, fairs and slaughterhouses “unlikely places for a proper 19th-century lady,” notes the Cleveland Museum of Art in a description of her work.

“Long dresses were too cumbersome for her rugged lifestyle; in order to wear trousers on the job she had to seek permission from the local government,” the website says.

Bonheur was one of the first women to dress sensibly for her work in European society . She also lived openly with women as her partners at a time when society denied that option for most gay people. She had a relationship with painter Nathalie Micas that lasted about 40 years until Micas’ death. Bonheur spent her final years in a relationship with the American painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke.

Bonheur, “The Farm at the Entrance of the Wood,” c. 1860–80. Cleveland Museum of Art. Image in public domain via museum’s website. Thank you, Cleveland Museum of Art.

Google on March 16, 2022, honored Bonheur.

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