Horse fair

horse fair

The Horse Fair

Artist: Rosa Bonheur

Rosa (Marie Rosalie) Bonheur was born March 16, 1822 in Bordeaux, France. She was widely acclaimed as an animal painter and was influenced by the work of the English artist, Sir Edwin Landseer.Bonheur was one of the most renowned animal painters in history. Her earliest training was received from her father, a minor landscape painter, who encouraged her interest in art in general and in animals as her exclusive subject. He allowed her to keep a veritable menagerie in their home, including a sheep that is reported to have lived on the balcony of their sixth-floor Parisian apartment.

Bonheur's unconventional lifestyle contributed to the myth that surrounded her during her lifetime. She smoked cigarettes in public, rode astride, and wore her hair short. To study the anatomy of animals, Bonheur visited the slaughterhouse; for this work, she favored men's attire and was required to obtain an official authorization from the police to dress in trousers and a smock.

While radical in her personal life, Bonheur was artistically conservative. Henri Cain later would recall that she “was not only an exceedingly intelligent artist, but a very conscientious and hard-working one.... She believed in honesty in art and always desired to keep very close to nature.” Bonheur's reputation grew steadily in the 1840s; she exhibited her animal paintings and sculptures at the Paris Salon regularly from 1841 to 1853. The Salons tended to support traditional styles, and most artists still sought to exhibit at the annual shows, as it was the primary way for their work to be seen by the public. In 1845, Bonheur won a third prize and, in 1848, a gold medal.

Because of this recognition from official sources, she then was awarded a commission from the French government to produce a painting on the subject of plowing. Plowing in Nivernais, exhibited at the Salon of 1849, firmly established her career in France. Bonheur later won international acclaim with her life size painting, The Horse Fair, exhibited at the 1853 Salon.

Bonheur’s popularity in England was assured after two versions of The Horse Fair were exhibited there, and Queen Victoria ordered a private viewing of the original at Windsor Castle. The artist’s chief source of revenue in the 1860s and 1870s came from sales in England rather than from her native France. In 1894, she was the first woman to receive the Grand Cross of the French Legion of Honor.

The Horse Fair (1835–55) and Weaning the Calves (1887) are both in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.


Photo credit: Charlie Hoyer