Rosa Bonheur: a liberated painter of . . . . . the snort and the stamp
`THE Horse Fair'' is large enough, being 8 feet high and 16 feet wide, to surround the viewer with its tumult. Standing near to it in the center of the scene, one can almost hear the Percherons snorting and stamping on their great hoofs, and the shouts of their handlers and taste the dust of the horse market. When I was a young child on my first visit to ``The Met,'' I was reluctant to approach too closely, having the same sort of feeling when, at the motion pictures, a locomotive came charging at me off the screen. With all its casual muscular action, the canvas exhibits a very unified horizontal composition. Mainly composed of the neutral colors of the horses, the sand, and the not-quite-green trees, it is enlivened by a scattering of blue shirts on the men and an ingenious threading of scarlet, which travels across the painting.
The horses on the extreme left and right both have red ropes across their flanks, the magnif-icent white rearing horse in the center has the same bright accent across his forehead. The horse blankets present other scarlet touches, and most of the horses have a less visible bit of red twined in their bridles. It may have been an indication of their being up for sale which the artist skillfully utilized in her composition.
This painting is Rosa Bonheur's chef d'oeuvre. It remains as popular today as when it was first presented at the Salon of 1853, although the reputation of the artist has declined. Art critics, her contemporaries and ours, have a tendency to sniff at her work. This is probably not just because she was a woman but more likely because animals rather than men star in her paintings.
The celebrated English art critic and essayist John Ruskin, after conceding, ``This lady gains in power every year,'' goes on to say, ``In `The Horse Fair' the human faces were nearly all dexterously, but disagreeably hidden, and the one chiefly shown had not the slightest character.'' Even a small reproduction such as ours shows this is debatable.
The painting gained Bonheur so much fame that she painted a quarter-size version to facilitate engraving in England, preparatory to an exhibition of the large, original painting in London. It was much admired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and prints from the engraving sold in enormous quantities. The small version was eventually bequeathed to the National Gallery in London, and it was the first painting exhibited there by a living artist. The large version was sold to a New Jersey promoter who promised to ``tour'' it from New Orleans to Boston. It was finally sold to Cornelius Vanderbilt, who presented it to the then newly opened Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where it remains today.
So popular was the painting that 40-odd years later, when the artist requested a friend to gather for her some fresh American sagebrush during a cross-country trip, the latter confided her mission to the railroad conductor, who promptly stopped the train in mid-desert, explaining he often admired ``The Horse Fair'' at the museum. He and other passengers gladly helped her gather the plant specimens.
When we remember that Rosa Bon-heur lived entirely in the 19th century, we are surprised at her spectacular and early fame. Her father was a painter of modest success who took over a drawing school for young ladies. He taught his eldest child to draw and paint as well as indulging her love for animals with many pets. A follower of social reformer Count de St.-Simon, he encouraged her to be a femme libre. Such was her talent, energy, and ambition that at age 19 she had a painting and a drawing, both with animal subjects, hung at the all-powerful Paris Salon. The painting was sold at once.
Only five years later, she won her first award, a third-class medal. In three more years she won a gold medal for one of the eight paintings she exhibited.
Rosa was the first woman artist to receive the coveted ribbon of the Chevalier de la L'egion d'Honneur, which was brought to her at her studio by the Empress Eug'enie. Later, she would be the first woman to achieve the rank of Officier.
She much admired George Sand, the French novelist who wore men's clothing and adopted a man's name. This was in an era when a woman had to obtain a police certificate, renewable every six months, in order to appear in trousers.
Such a pass was granted to Rosa Bon-heur for reasons of ``health,'' but it did not permit such attire at ``spectacles, balls, or other public meeting places.'' So it is not strange that Rosa appears in portraits with short hair, plainly combed, wearing dresses of handsome fabrics but with none of the crinolines, ruffles, and embroidery a fashion-conscious lady would have chosen.
Bonheur first adopted male dress on a trip with a friend through the rugged Pyrenees mountains when in their 20s. She wore trousers in order not to be conspicuous as she sketched at the horse market as well as when horseback riding astride (considered scandalous).
She encouraged women friends and pupils to be the equal of men in every endeavor. She wrote: ``Ah, If nations could only agree to employ their resources to perfect agriculture and improve transportation [Saint-Simonian goals] and to bring their girl children a good education, what an explosion of happiness there would be on earth!''
But most of all, animals were her art and her life. After she achieved success, the collection of domestic animals of her childhood became a full-scale menagerie that included such exotics as monkeys, reindeer, and lions. She told a fellow artist, ``I became an animal painter because I loved to move among animals. I would study an animal and draw it in the position it took, and when it changed to another position I would draw that.''