For Pride Month, we’re looking at a widely recognized LGBTQ artist of the 19th century: Rosa Bonheur. Openly lesbian, she belonged to the Realism art movement and is known for her paintings of animals.
Who was Rosa Bonheur?
Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) was a leader of Realism, a 19th-century French art movement seeking to depict subjects as they really were. She lived openly as a lesbian with her partner, Nathalie Micas. Rejecting society’s gender expectations, Bonheur smoked, adopted a short hairstyle, and wore pants. At the time, wearing pants was illegal for women in France, and Bonheur had to seek permission from the police to do so. After Micas’s death, an American woman artist, Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, became Bonheur’s companion and painted her portrait.
A Painter of Animals
Many Realists focused on social and political issues, but Bonheur’s passion was for animals. Unlike artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Bonheur wasn’t interested in exotic wild animals like tigers. Instead, she focused on farm animals like horses, sheep, and cows.
Growing up in Paris, Bonheur frequently drew domestic animals. Determined to perfect her knowledge of animal anatomy, Bonheur studied carcasses at slaughterhouses,
made sketches at the Parisian horse fair, and conducted dissections at a veterinary school. Her drawings, such as this one, show a keen understanding of how animals move.
Bonheur’s masterpiece is widely considered to be The Horse Fair, a painting now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that depicts the horse market of Paris. The artwork is massive (bigger than 8 by 16 feet). Standing in front of it makes you feel like you’re at the fair, hot horse breath steaming down at you, dust clouds rising from the ground. You can practically hear the sounds of the rearing horses.
A Sculptor, Too
Though known mostly as a painter, Bonheur also made sculptures. This statue from the National Gallery of Art depicts a sheep grazing. Bonheur has beautifully evoked different textures here, from the wooly shorn coat to the smooth hooves. The sculpture also hints at the powerful joints and musculature underneath the sheep’s coat and skin. Though made of bronze, the artwork looks like it could almost come alive.
A major artist of the Realism art movement, Rosa Bonheur is considered by many art historians to be one of the greatest painters of animals. Her reputation rests largely on her paintings, but her sculptures are also not to be ignored. This Pride Month, we commemorate Bonheur as an example of a great LGBTQ artist. In Washington, D.C., her paintings, drawings, and sculptures can be seen in the collections of the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Other U.S. museums with large collections of her work include the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.
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