Engraving by Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), published 1890 in London and printed by A. Holdgate. Signed by Bonheur both in the plate and in pencil (lower left).
Printed on ultra-thin Chine-collé, a special technique in printmaking in which the image is transferred under pressure to the hard surface of Chine-collé paper
that is at the same time bonded to a heavier paper during the printing process. This technique enabled Bonheur and her printer to capture with greater precision the shaggy hair of the cows and grassy landscape.
Marie-Rosalie Bonheur, considered one of the greatest animal painters of the 19th century, was born 1822 in Bordeaux, France.She was one of four children, each trained as an artist. Most influential in her life was her father, Oscar-Raymond Bonheur, a trained artist and Saint-Simonian socialist. The Saint-Simonians advocated a form of socialism based the equality of women and men and abolition of class distinctions. Raymond’s views contributed to Rosa’s liberal outlook and defiant personality leading to her dressing as a male, cutting her hair short, and smoking cigarettes and cigars. Her actions and personality have placed her in a decisive position in early feminism. She wrote that “To [my father’s] doctrines I owe my great and glorious ambition for the sex to which I proudly belong and whose independence I shall defend until my dying day.” More important for Rosa’s work was Raymond’s respect for the writings of Georges Sand and Felicité Robert de Lamennais, who believed that every living creature had a soul, creating a sense of respect within Rosa for the animals of the natural world. She would later own many animals, including horses, lions, and any number familiar farm mammals . Her love of animals translated into amazingly precise and interpretive depictions of their nature and physiognomy. From the beginning of her career Rosa was most interested in depicting animals and their natural environments.
She made her debut at the Paris Salon in 1841 with Chèvres et Moutons (Goats and Sheep) and Lapins (Rabbits Nibbling Carrots). By the age of 23, Rosa had already exhibited eighteen works at the Paris Salon including sculpture. In 1848 she earned a gold medal.
When in 1849 Rosa’s father died she succeeded him as Director of the École Gratuite de Dessins des Jeunes Filles, while also establishing her own studio with her companion, Nathalie Micas. In the same year she was commissioned by the French government to "Plowing in the Nivernais."
In 1851, Bonheur began a relationship with the famed Paris printing firm Goupil. Thereafter her painted images would be reproduced by Lefèvre in London and Goupil in Paris, disseminating her name and images and increasing her fame beyond the Paris Salon and her French public.
As a young artist Rosa continued to exhibit her animal paintings and sculpture at the Paris Salon from 1841 to 1853 and winning a third prize in 1845 and a gold medal in 1848. From this initial success at the Salon she was awarded a commission from the French Government to paint a work on the subject of ploughing. “Plowing in the Nivernais” was later exhibited at the Salon in 1849. Bonheur's most famous work (still on permanent exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum in New York today), “The Horse Fair” (Le Marché aux Chevaux) (1853) was the painting which brought her international acclaim. “The Horse Fair,” was submitted to the 1853 Paris Salon after 18 months of work. Rosalia Shriver, in her book on Rosa Bonheur describes the monumental nature of "The Horse Fair: "When it was finally finished and exhibited at the Salon of 1853, its creator was only 31 years old. Yet no other woman had ever achieved a work of such force and brilliance; and no other animal painter had produced a work of such size".
After the Salon of 1853, Rosa was declared “hors de concours”, exempting her from the necessity of submitting further Salon entries for acceptance.
Le Marché aux Chevaux (The Horse Fair) was sent to Ghent, Belgium, where the Belgian art dealer, Ernest Gambart, became interested and later purchased it. Gambart had an office in London and convinced Rosa and Nathalie (her love partner at that time) to come London to tour with the painting. During this period, Rosa became fascinated with the United States Her interest was first piqued in 1854 when the painter George Catlin and a group of indigenous Americans paraded through the streets of Paris. In 1889 Buffalo Bill Cody participated in the Exposition Universelle with his Wild West Show. Rosa became intensely interested in the American frontier and the landscape and fauna of the American West. Her passion for the U.S. would later lead to her relationship with Anna Klumpke, a young artist from California, who became Rosa's companion until her death.
In 1859, Rosa established her permanent residence at By, near the Forest of Fontainebleau. Although working in the geographic vicinity of the French Barbizon painters, she did not associate with them. During her stay at By she was greeted by both well-known public figures and also opened her home to less well-to-do visitors during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Ardently political, Rosa was ready to fight for the cause of her country, but rejected military combat. Rosa continued to work fervently on sketches, paintings, and commissions for the next forty years until her death on May 25th, 1899. She was seventy-eight years old. After Rosa’s death, Anna Klumpke found 892 paintings and several boxes of drawings, all sorted and dated. The items were sold after her death, grossing over 2 million francs, an immense sum at the time.