Rosa Bonheur, a trailblazing French artist who was active in the 19th century, is the subject of a major show at the Musée d’Orsay opening Tuesday. The show, which honors the bicentenary of her birth, is in partnership with the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which is located in Bonheur’s native city of Bordeaux.
Bonheur was known as an animalier, an artist who focuses on the representation of animals. Her paintings of livestock, predatory cats, and horses launched her into a plane of fame and recognition never before granted to a woman artist. In fact, the Empress Eugénie personally traveled to Bonheur’s home to give her the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit, and declared that “Genius knows no gender.”
Bonheur’s journey to such heights was, however, marked by tragedy and hardship. According to the exhibition’s wall text, Bonheur’s mother died from sheer exhaustion after working day and night to keep her family alive. The eldest sibling, Bonheur was burdened with taking on family responsibilities.
However, she was also known as a rebellious child, a trait that would change her life immeasurably. She refused an apprenticeship as a seamstress and demanded that her father, who ran a small art school, take her on as a student. Later in her career, when she was barred from going to animal fairs, she would frequent them disguised as a man. She also lived as a lesbian, cohabitating with her partner Nathalie Micas and, after Micas’ death, with the American painter Anna Klumpke.
Bonheur is a beloved figure in France and beyond. Below are five works that made Bonheur the giant she is known to be today.