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Rich, Famous and then Forgotten: The Art of Rosa Bonheur
A detail of “Two Rabbits” by Rosa Bonheur, second from left, on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Oct. 17, 2022. An exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay will be the first major Paris show in over 100 years for a painter who defied gender expectations in her personal as well as in her professional life. Elliott Verdier/The New York Times.

by Elaine Sciolino

PARIS.- How do we talk about Rosa Bonheur? A realistic painter of animals, she became the richest and most famous female artist of 19th-century France, burnishing her reputation with savvy self-promotion and an eccentric personal life.

In the 20th century, she was forgotten.

Now, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris is rehabilitating Bonheur with a retrospective on the bicentennial of her birth that is the biggest exhibition of her works ever and the first major Bonheur show in Paris for a century. The exhibition, which opens on Tuesday and runs through Jan. 15, 2023, brings together nearly 200 pieces and dozens of supporting prints and photographs by other artists, some of them never seen publicly in France.

Bonheur spent a lifetime studying animals. Trained by her father during her teenage years, she began copying works in the Louvre, drawing and painting them with photographic precision. Convinced that animals had souls, she often portrayed them staring straight at the viewer, as if they were human.

The exhibition covers the sweep of Bonheur’s long career, including works as diverse as a painting of two rabbits nibbling on a carrot that she showed at the Paris Salon when she was 19; a portrait of “Buffalo Bill” Cody on horseback, whom she befriended when he performed his “Wild West” show in Paris during the Universal Exposition in 1889; and cyanotype photographs she experimented with in later life.

Prominently displayed is a vast canvas belonging to the Orsay that is considered one of her most important works, “Plowing in the Nivernais,” which shows two teams of oxen pulling heavy plows during the fall ritual of turning over the soil before winter.

“Her work is rooted in the 19th century, but like all great art, it helps us to think about the present,” Leïla Jarbouai, one of the show’s curators, said in an interview. “Her work and her life speak to us today.”

Bonheur’s “rediscovery” coincides with a recent resurgence of interest in forgotten women artists who managed to succeed in a male-dominated profession.

Almost 400 years after her death, the 17th-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi, who painted for 40 years, now enjoys star status. It took decades after the death of the Swiss-born artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp for the Museum of Modern Art in New York to organize the first comprehensive exhibition in the United States of her work. In 2020, the Frick Museum in New York received and exhibited two pastels by the underappreciated Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757).

In all those cases — and it is true with Bonheur — the women did not toil in obscurity. Their work was well known during their lifetimes. And then, no one remembered them.

“We have this straitjacket of a canon we’ve been living in for so long,” said Ian Wardropper, director of the Frick Collection. “It is healthy to open it up and look at the other artists who were left out and ask why and review them and give them their moment.”

During her lifetime, Bonheur became both very famous and very rich. She was awarded the Légion d’Honneur — the first woman to receive the medal for achievement in the arts. She was feted by royals and statesmen. A rose variety was named after her.

Very early in her career, Bonheur made a very un-French decision: She decided to sell her works on the private market abroad, and refused to exhibit in the Paris Salon or to align herself with an artistic movement. Her work was dismissed as “ringard” — “tacky” — in France, where pictures of animals never enjoyed the status of history painting and portraiture. Then came the triumph of impressionism, which buried her hyper-realistic work.

The story of her largest and most famous painting, “The Horse Fair,” which depicts the horse market in Paris as if it were a battle scene, shows how she was underappreciated in France. The art museum in Bordeaux, the city where Bonheur was born, turned down an offer to buy the painting; instead, it was bought by an art dealer and changed hands several times before Cornelius Vanderbilt II acquired it in 1887 at auction for $53,000, an exorbitant sum at the time. He immediately donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it hangs today.

The painting, which measures 16.5 feet wide and 8 feet tall, is not in the Musée d’Orsay show. But an entire room is dedicated to it, including an interactive screen and several studies — one almost identical in size to the finished work.

In France, Bonheur was known during her lifetime for her quirky habits, defying gender expectations in her personal as well as in her professional life.

She wore her hair short, rode astride instead of sidesaddle, learned how to shoot a gun, hunted small game, told bawdy jokes and smoked a lot at a time when the habit was not considered respectable for women. (She rolled her own cigarettes.) She never married and was sometimes mistaken for a man.

Bonheur kept dozens of animal species on the grounds of her chateau on the fringes of the Fontainebleau Forest, about 40 miles from Paris, including sheep, horses, monkeys, dogs, birds, and, at times, lions and tigers. To study animal anatomy up close in the all-male settings of livestock fairs and blood-filled slaughterhouses, she received a cross-dressing permit from the police to wear pants; when she painted, her “uniform” was a blue artist’s smock and black trousers.

She lived for four decades at her chateau with Nathalie Micas, a childhood friend and fellow painter. “Had I been a man, I would have married her,” Bonheur wrote of Micas. “I would have had a family, with my children as heirs, and nobody would have any right to complain.”

Micas died in 1889, and Bonheur, then 67, eventually invited Anna Klumpke, an American painter 34 years her junior, to live with her. Their relationship would be the “divine marriage of two souls,” she wrote in a letter extending the invitation to the young woman, whom she later called the daughter she never had. After Bonheur’s death, Klumpke became the sole heir of her estate.

But the Orsay show captures the tension that lingers over the delicate subject of Bonheur’s sexuality. The introduction to the catalog, co-authored by Jarbouai, states, “Defying the conventions of this corseted century, she lived with women she loved and established a true matrimony, founded thanks to the strength of her paintbrush. She became a powerful symbol for the emancipation of lesbians.”

But Katherine Brault, the current owner of Bonheur’s chateau, which is now a museum, says there is no proof that Bonheur was a lesbian. In another essay in the catalog, co-written with her daughter Lou, Brault characterizes Bonheur’s relationship with Micas as an “act of independence and extraordinary sisterhood.”

Even calling Bonheur a feminist depends on the definition of that term. “She opened frontiers,” Jarbouai said. “She gave an example to other women. And she did big paintings — of horses, stags, lions — not small flowers, in pastels. That is feminist.”

But Bonheur did not want to be a symbol for other women or for women’s rights. Asked by an American newspaper in 1859 what she thought of the women’s rights movement, she said, “Women’s rights — women’s nonsense! Women should seek to establish their rights by good and great works, and not by conventions.”

She championed gender equality — for herself and for her art. “I have no patience for women who ask permission to think,” she said in the 1859 interview. Indeed, she did not ask permission; she painted and let her work speak for itself, expecting to be put on equal footing with male painters like Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault.

It was in these terms that Bonheur described herself in the interview: “Art is an absorbent — a tyrant. It demands heart, brain, soul, body, the entireness of his votary,” she said. “Nothing less will win its highest favor. I wed art. It is my husband — my world — my life-dream — the air I breathe. I know nothing else — feel nothing else — think nothing else. My soul finds in it the most complete satisfaction.”

Rosa Bonheur

Through Jan. 15, 2023, at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris; Force contributed research.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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