Edouard Dubufe et Rosa Bonheur (1857) Portrait of Rosa Bonheur Colleen's Paris
Let's Explore,  Museum exhibitions

Rosa Bonheur Looking Into The Souls of Animals

Rosa Bonheur married art—”It is my husband, my world, the air that I breathe. I do not feel anything else. I cannot think of anything else.” For Rosa Bonheur, animals were that art and the eyes of animals were the windows to their souls. The Musée d’Orsay presents this retrospective on her “marriage” for you until January 15, 2023. A friend mentioned wanting to see Rosa Bonheur. A browser search of the name suggested three drinking spots in the Parisian suburbs (guinguettes) named Rosa Bonheur. With more digging, I found out she was a French animal portraitist, sculptor, illustrator, photographer, independent female, admired icon of Buffalo Bill Cody, and first female artist to receive the Legion d’honneur (1822-1899). Once I reviewed my own animals-looking-at-me images from endangered species at the Jardin des Plantes, I knew this was a must-see exhibition. I understood the feeling of looking into their souls.

Art in Her Early Life

Artistic events in the life of Rosa Bonheur started her on her independent journey. By the age of 11, she loses her mother. Her artist father does not know what to do with Rosa’s hair, cuts it short and she always keeps it that way. By the age of 12, Rosa knows she wants to be an animal painter. At the age of 14, she sells her drawings and already captures their eyes. Frequenting the slaughter houses and muddy pastures, she has to receive special police authorisation (1842) to dress as a man (Permission de travestissement). Crinolines in a field or slaughter house are not very practical.

A Free Life as an Unmarried Woman

As an unmarried woman, Rosa Bonheur’s love of travel was a chance to discover new regions in France, picturesque sites and animals — and opportunities to see a world outside France from 1855 onward: United Kingdom and Scotland. Although honoured and selling paintings in France and across the Channel, she was more famous in the United States than anywhere else. In the United States paintings by women created curiosity.

Le Marché aux chevaux 1855 smaller version detail Rosa Bonheur Colleen's Paris

The curiosity stirred up “Rosemania”. In her lifetime, the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York would eventually acquire “The Horse Fair” (Le Marché aux chevaux). With the 1857 sale of the painting, she could move with her animals from a house at No. 1 rue d’Assas to the 15th century Château de By-Thomery (visits possible) near Fontainebleau. She was the first woman to buy a residence in her own name and manage her own affairs. According to the French Civil Code, a woman was civically incapable in the eyes of the law. Thus, she led a life as a free woman.

What You Can Expect

Expect majesty, paintings that fill walls, animals that look at and follow you with their eyes. Sometimes you can imagine the painting is a photograph. The souvenir magazines “Connaissance des arts” and Beaux Arts are only available in French, but the illustrations are enriching. “Connaissance” integrates interiors of the Château de Rosa Bonheur with her paintings and her studio.

Connaissance des Arts Beaux Arts Rosa Bonheur Musée d'Orsay Colleen's Paris

The audio guide (French/English – adults and children) is worth the fee and as always gives more insights than the wall labels. The handout brochure is available in French and in English. Plan on over two hours to fully absorb the exhibit. It will be time well spent.

Her Intriguing Story Continues Almost into Oblivion

Rosa Bonheur had encounters with other artists, painters (Edwin Landseer), actors (Buffalo Bill Cody) or the stunt actors (Lakota and Sioux) where the animals were the stars, the humans occupying a secondary role. Her animals and shadows are intense. Rosa Bonheur would eventually fade almost into oblivion after her death. The new owners are still discovering her work in the attic.

In association with the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, the exhibition celebrates Rosa Bonheur’s birth two hundred years ago to remind the public of this avant-garde woman. The Musée d’Orsay exhibit runs in conjunction with a temporary exhibit at the Château de By (now known as the Château de Rosa Bonheur). This exhibition is organized by the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux in an exceptional partnership with the Château Musée Rosa Bonheur.