The Matriarchal Reign of Artist Rosa Bonheur

51MHMbCQsRL._On the 16th of March 1822, French painter and sculptor Marie-Rosalie Bonheur was born in Bordeaux, Gironde, as the oldest child in a family of artists. A feisty, ambitious woman, Bonheur achieved more than most of her female contemporaries could ever dream of. During a time when the Napoleonic Codes limited French women to access their own money or receive an inheritance, Bonheur, whose mother died when she was 10 (allegedly of emotional exhaustion bringing up a large family mostly on her own) was determined to pursue her own independent path in life. She refused her artist father’s protection and his offer to sign her paintings with his name, in order to validate her art in a patriarchal society. Bonheur worked hard at building a very lucrative career painting mainly animals and large scale dynamic compositions in oils.  She earned all of a maximum of three Salon medals awarded to a single artist. Her work toured Europe and while in England, Queen Victoria personally admired it, requesting a private viewing of her famous painting The Horse Fair (1855). Her reputation was so prominent that in her native France she received  a government commission to execute Ploughing in the Nivernais (1850), she was decorated with the Legion of Honour by Empress Eugénie in 1865 and was promoted to Officer of the order in 1894, becoming effectively a statesperson.

Bonheur famously lived her life without a husband, alongside her childhood companion, Natalie Micas and after the latter’s death, with American portraitist Anna Klumpke. “At one time Rosa Bonheur had a complete menagerie in her home: a lion and lioness, a stag, a wild sheep, a gazelle, horses, etc. One of her pets was a young lion whom she allowed to run about and often romped with…I was easier in mind when this leonine pet gave up the ghost.” (Theodore Stanton, ed., Reminiscences of Rosa Bonheur, 1976).  Her zoological passion seems to have been nurtured from early childhood when her mother taught her the alphabet using pictures of animals. In her time, most places where she could research them though were inaccessible to women, so she requested and “received special dispensation from the police to wear trousers and a smock to visit butcher shops and slaughterhouses. It was these gritty locales that she closely studies animal anatomy. Bonheur also wore her hair short, rode astride, smoked cigarettes in public, and achieved a successful career as an animalier, demonstrating her independent spirit.” (Dr. Jordana Pomeroy, National Museum of Women in the Arts).  

51QHKSB54AL._SX385_Much of her fighting spirit was captured by her companion and biographer Anna Klumpke who joined her extraordinary menagerie in the last years of Bonheur’s life; her book is written in such an informal style (one wonders if Gertrude Stein knew about it when writing her autobiography of Alice B. Toklas). She describes Bonheur’s studio practice and ideals, her views on art and society and reproduces the French police’s special licence to permit the celebrated painter of horses to wear male attire in public. She records Bonheur as saying, “I remember that every Sunday my mother would dress me up in white. How proud I was of my dress, with my pantaloons sticking out beneath and my red shoes.” Those pantaloons, exchanged for pants in adulthood, continued to stick out notoriously her whole life. And later, she explained,  “I was forced to recognize that the clothing of my sex was a constant bother. That is why I decided to solicit the authorization to wear men’s clothing from the prefect of police. But the suit I wear is my work attire, and nothing else. The epithets of imbeciles have never bothered me…” (Janson, History of Art).

Much of contemporary attention has shifted from Bonheur’s actual work, onto her unconventional lifestyle and same sex relationships. One of her biographers, Theodore Stantonm closely hinted at the fact that Bonheur and Micas relationship was a conjugal, marital and even contractual one, although the artist called her companions merely her close ‘friends’. Stanton cited painter Joseph Verdier’s description of Bonheur painting “while Nathalie Micas was taking a bath in a room opening into the studio”. He remarked that the two women merged finances, wrote wills making each the other’s primary heir, and arranged to be buried in the same plot. “There are many instances of published writing acknowledging marital relationships between women by calling them friendships. Victorian women in female couples were not automatically subject to the exposure and scandal visited on opposite-sex couples who stepped outside the bounds of respectable sexual behavior. Instead, many female couples enjoyed both the right to privacy associated with marriage and the public privileges accorded to female friendship. (…) To call one woman another’s superlative friend was not to disavow their marital relationship but to proclaim it in the language of the day.” (Sharon Marcus, Between Women. Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England , Princeton University Press, 2007).

41F4aKixEJLWith Bonheur’s last female companion, the American artist Anna Klumpke, the relationship was more based on awe from the younger painter’s part:  Anna had been given a “Rosa” doll, styled after the famous Bonheur when she was a little girl and all her life she dreamed of meeting and painting her. She allegedly made her acquaintance under the sneaky pretext of being the interpreter for a horse dealer. The two women were soon living together at Bonheur’s estate in Thomery, near Fontainebleau, and their relationship endured until Bonheur’s death in 1899. Although no co-habitation laws existed for same-sex partners at the time, Bonheur made sure that she tailored her legal affairs to suit her personal inclinations. Klumpke was named sole heir to her estate, became her diarist and oversaw the sale of her works, as well as the establishment of Bonheur into a national institution. It seems that the matriarch singled out Klumpke for good reason. She knew she would do justice to her work and legacy, and perhaps show the world that there was nothing extraordinary in her life choices.