The animals she painted were as famous to her peers as Disney is to us. They made creator Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) into an art celebrity – one immortalized by look-alike dolls. The Emperor put her in charge of the Imperial drawing school. His wife presented her with the Legion d’Honneur, something she was the first female artist to receive. Yet this cross-dressing talent was hardly conventional.
Once fame gave her the funds, Bonheur bought herself a large estate outside Paris. There she constructed a personalized atelier, complete with free-range aviary and zoo. The premises were shared with her girlfriend, painter Nathalie Micas, and Micas’ mother.
Her own mother died – exhausted by trying to feed the family. But Bonheur leveraged her talents into commercial success. Despite her modest origins, she made a very good living from her art.
In contrast to all her austere, official portraits, she was also entertaining. Bonheur loved nothing more than a good artistic game. Working with her artist friends, she produced both caricatures and visual puzzles. Until 27 January 2020, some of these are on show at the Musée d’Orsay. Included are pages from a comic – one she drew in May of 1870.
Of course it features cute animals. But its subject is Rosa’s “freedom” once her girlfriend and mother-in-law depart. In cahoots with a painter pal named Paul Chardin, she shows herself “Free at last”. Changing into trousers, she enjoys a smoke with Chardin. Then, the pair take an eventful hike in the course of which Bonheur is (thanks to her hat) mistaken for a priest.
It’s light, funny, frank stuff. But the pages are also sad. They were drawn only months before the Franco-Prussian War… during which Bonheur tried in vain to join the Army. This was denied. But the artist emerged unscathed, as did her menagerie. After Micas’ death, Bonheur even found a second partner – American portrait painter Anna Klumpke. It was Klumpke, who grew up playing with a Bonheur doll, that left Rosa’s little comic to the nation.
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