Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899)
A major national and international event, this exhibition honors an extraordinary, innovative and inspiring artist, Rosa Bonheur. This artist, known as an icon of women's emancipation, placed the living world at the heart of her work and her existence. She was committed to the recognition of animals in their singularity and sought through her work to express their vitality and their “soul.” Through her great technical mastery, she was able to render both animal anatomy and psychology.
This exhibition allows the public to (re)discover the power and richness of her work, by gathering and choosing from the artist's immense body of work a demanding selection of approximately 200 works (paintings, graphic arts, sculptures, and photographs) from the most prestigious public and private collections in Europe and the United States.
The richness of the living world
Born into a family of artists, Rosa Bonheur produced an abundant body of work, the fruit of her daily cohabitation with animals, in her successive studios and in the field. During her travels, in the Auvergne, the Nivernais, the Pyrenees, as well as in Scotland, she demonstrated an insatiable curiosity for the diversity of species and their habitats. She was also fascinated by the wild beauty of the American West, and its inhabitants, human or not, even if she was never able to go there. The artist took great pleasure in depicting Buffalo Bill and all the cast of the Wild West Show in 1889.
Her view of the world around her showed an exceptional vision of both flora and fauna. Fascinated by animals, Bonheur had gathered around her, in her property of By, a formidable menagerie, including dozens of different species, where dogs, stags and wild animals lived side by side freely. Placing animals at the heart of her artistic creation in spectacular compositions or by isolating them in real portraits, Rosa Bonheur was able to create an expressive work of an extraordinary realism, devoid of sentimentality, nourished by scientific discoveries and by the new attention paid to the animal species of the land and to animal husbandry.
The exhibition plays on differences in scale, the artist having painted both very small formats and monumental works, most often panoramic and dynamic, as well as true full-height portraits of animals. Thus, Rosa Bonheur depicts the majesty of the stag in the Roi de la forêt [King of the Forest] (Private Collection, USA), the oxen working the land in the famous Labourage Nivernais [Ploughing in the Nivernais] (Musée d'Orsay) or the beauty and energy of half-wild horses in La Foulaison du blé en Camargue [Wheat Threshing in the Camargue] (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux). The artist sees them belonging to the rural world and to peasant life, while at the same time exalting their earthy power.
An extraordinary artist
Celebrated during her lifetime on both sides of the Atlantic, the exhibition aims to reveal little explored or even unknown aspects of this fascinating personality, who was able to assert herself both as a free woman and as an officially recognized artist in a very straight-laced century. The first woman artist to receive the prestigious Légion d'honneur, Rosa Bonheur was able to associate herself with the most eminent dealers and collectors in order to dominate the art market and to win her financial and creative independence. A real “star” in her time, she organized her life around her work and the relentless quest for perfection, accompanied in particular by her lifelong companion Nathalie Micas, who lived by her side for more than fifty years and participated in her artwork. The preservation of her studio and archives is the result of the involvement of her “brush sister,” the American painter Anna Klumpke, who lived at the Château de By during the last years of the artist's life.
Rosa Bonheur was quickly seen as a role model in the quest for independence for women, and artists in particular. Articles and reviews, French, but especially English or American, bear witness to this inspiring force for future generations. The image of the artist was so widespread that, in addition to numerous painted, photographed or engraved portraits, Rosa Bonheur’s work, as well as her portrait, became the subject of what we would today call “merchandise.” Alongside the public image, more unusual aspects of the artist will be revealed, through unusual objects intended for a private sphere (paintings on pebbles, sculptures of chestnuts, caricatures, etc.).
It was through her work that Rosa Bonheur managed above all to establish herself as the artist with the most expensive works of her time. One of the original features of the exhibition is the presentation of a large selection of studies and sketches, both painted and drawn, which allow us to appreciate the full scope of the work, drawing phase included, of this virtuosic and demanding artist's creative process. Among the recent discoveries, a canvas drawing of over 4.5 meters long from the Château de By will be shown to the public for the first time.
A work that still resonates today
200 years after her birth, Rosa Bonheur's art and personality resonate with many societal issues that are relevant today more than ever: the place of women in art and society, the animal cause, rurality and ecology.
Far surpassing the clichés she helped construct, Rosa Bonheur proved herself above all a great creator, who deserves to be (re)discovered as such.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue that is the first scholarly publication to provide an overview of the many aspects of Bonheur's work.
This exhibition is organized by the Musée d'Orsay and the Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux in exceptional partnership with the Château Musée Rosa Bonheur. The exhibition will be presented at the Musée des Beaux-arts de Bordeaux from May 18 to September 18, 2022.