Rosa Bonheur (March 16, 1822 - May 25, 1899) was a French realist painter and sculptor. Her father was a landscape painter taught by Henri de Saint-Simon. She was the sister of artist Auguste Bonheur and sculptor Isidore Jules Bonheur and the instructor of Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, with whom she later resided.
She was taught to paint by her father since, as a female, she could not at the time attend art school. She showed a great affinity for animals, and made them her specialty. She was influenced by the English animal painter Edward Landseer. She also studied animal anatomy by visiting slaughterhouses and performing dissections. She prepared sketches by such means, as well as from life, and prepared detailed studies before beginning to work on her paintings and sculptures .
Rosa Bonheur received a French government commission which lead to her first great success, the Horse Ploughing at the Nivernais, exhibited in 1849. Her most famous work was the monumental Horse Fair, completed in 1855, which measured eight feet high by sixteen feet wide. It led to international fame and recognition and that same year she travelled to Scotland, enroute meeting Queen Victoria, who admired her work, and where she completed sketches for later works including A Scottish Raid completed in 1860, and Highland Shepherd. These were anachronistic pieces, as they depicted a way of life in the Scottish highlands that had disappeared a century earlier. Nonetheless, they had enormous appeal to Victorian sensibilities. She was especially popular in England and less so in her native France.
She was considered the most famous woman artist of her time (Janson, 674). She was represented by private art galleries, and in particular that of Ernest Gambart (1814-1902), which would purchase the reproduction rights to her work and sell engraved copies of her paintings. It was Gambart who brought Bonheur to the United Kingdom in 1855. Many engravings were created by the skillful Charles George Lewis (1808-1880), one of the finest engravers of his day. Gambart sold through his gallery in London's Pall Mall.
Bonheur is perhaps most famous today because she was known for wearing men's clothing, and is now seen as an early feminist. She said at the time that this was simply practical, as it facilitated her work with animals: "I was forced to recognize that the clothing of my sex was a constant bother. That is why I decided to solicit the authorization to wear men's clothing from the prefect of police. But the suit I wear is my work attire, and nothing else. The epithets of imbeciles have never bothered me...." (Janson, 929)
She lived for fifty years with her female companion Nathalie Micas at her country estate near Fontainebleau. After Micas' death, she taught and lived with the American painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke. She died at the age of 77. Many of her paintings, which had not been shown publicly, were sold at auction in Paris in 1900 .