Bonheur, Marie Rosalie (16 March 1822 - 25 May 1899)
Bonheur was born in Bordeaux, France, to a nominally Jewish family. All four children in the family became artists. Inspired by George Sand, Rosa began dressing in boys' clothes in order to study animal anatomy, a sartorial habit of freedom she never abandoned. She visited slaughterhouses and also sketched at the horse market.
Bonheur, the 19th century's most admired woman artist, was known for her unsentimental and realistic renderings of animals. She was a pupil of her father, Raymond Bonheur. Her work gained her wide popularity, particularly in England and America.
Her most famous painting, “The Horse Fair” (1853—1855), is in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum. Cornelius Vanderbilt paid a then-record sum of $55,000 for the painting.
T. Stanton, in Reminiscences of Rosa Bonheur (1878—1882), states that her friends thought her an agnostic, although Joseph McCabe found that she seemed at times to have used pantheistic language.
- Copy of a French police certificate issued to Rosa Bonheur giving permission to wear male attire in public, with restrictions against attending "spectacles, balls or other public meeting places" in such attire. Renewable every six months, the permit was given "for reasons of health" and was countersigned by her physician.
Not so well known is that Bonheur secured a special authorization from the French government to allow her to wear men’s clothing “for reasons of health” and to allow her to wander through farms and slaughterhouses to research and sketch animal anatomy. Ironically, on one of the few occasions when she dressed as a woman, she was arrested for female impersonation.
On another occasion, teased by a man for going out unchaperoned in society, Bonheur retorted, “Oh my dear sir, if you knew how little I care for your sex, you wouldn’t get any ideas in your head. The fact is, in the way of males, I like only the bulls I paint.”
(l. to r.) Nathalie Micas and Rosa Bonheur
This was evident to Nathalie Micas, with whom she lived for over forty years. When Micas died, an American painter, Anna Klumpke, moved into the house and stayed with her for the next seven years, until Bonheur’s death at the age of seventy-seven.
Bonheur was the first woman ever to be awarded France’s Officier de la Légion d’Honneur. She told friends she found the canine race more humane than inhuman humans. When a village priest of Tréveneuc once came to watch her work and, short-sighted, leaned over her shoulder to see better, she started painting nude bathers of both sexes. To her amusement, the indignant cleric left quickly.
Upon her death of pulmonary congestion, Bonheur was buried, according to her wishes, in a vault that included both Micas and Klumpke. Although an outspoken freethinker, she agreed to have a religious funeral but said, “Though I make this concession as regards my body, there is no change in my philosophical [not religious] creed.”