Rosa Bonheur (Marie-Rosalie Bonheur) was born into a family of artists in the city of Bordeaux. Her skill was evident from an early age, and she received formal training from her father, Raimond Bonheur, a landscape and portrait painter. At the age of six, her family moved to Paris where she had the unusual circumstance of being the only girl educated at a small school for boys, mainly because of her parents’ strong belief that women should be educated alongside men. Bonheur was considered an “unruly” child and was expelled from several schools throughout her childhood for demonstrating “tomboyish” behavior. The difficulties she encountered learning to read and write made matters worse, and to remedy this, her mother would have her select and draw an animal from each letter of the alphabet, a task to which she credited her passion of drawing animals.
Bonheur studied animal subjects in great detail throughout her life, going so far as to perform dissections to get an intimate glimpse into their bone and muscle structure. She adopted the habit of dressing in men’s clothing, stating that for the work she conducted, “the clothing of my sex was a constant bother.” Due to strict gender codes of the day, she had to be granted special permission by Parisian authorities to wear her signature waistcoat and trousers.
Bonheur showcased her first painting at the Salon in 1841 at the age of 19. She exhibited her first sculpture there in 1842. It was an art form considered open only to men, but an area in which she excelled. She enjoyed continued success at the Salon, and in 1848, she won the Gold Medal and a coveted state commission to paint her first acclaimed work Plowing in the Mivernais, in 1849. Her work became so desired by galleries and collectors throughout Europe and the United States, she became a household name nearly overnight. In 1860, she moved from Paris to the Forests of Fountainebleu where she was surrounded by her beloved animals (both domestic and wild) including lions, bears and goats.
Throughout her career, she had a keen sense for marketing and promotion. Knowing the immense popularity of the time for traveling shows, she took on the task of “reinventing” her public image at the age of 67 through a series of paintings of her friend Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show. Queen Victoria counted her as not only her favorite artist, but a friend. Her list of artistic awards was just as distinguished, winning honors at the Great London Exhibition of 1882, the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867 and the 1893 Chicago Worlds Colombian Exposition. Perhaps her most prestigious honor was being the first female Officer of the Legion of Honor.