IF I were to write, ``Once there was a poor girl who loved animals and she grew up to be the most famous painter of animals of her day,'' it would sound like a fairy tale. But that is the true story of Rosa Bonheur. Rosa was born in France in 1822 when very few girls thought about becoming artists. Her father taught at a drawing school where the daughters of well-off families received drawing lessons, but it was not well-paid work. He was a good teacher; his four children all became artists.
Rosa's father put her to work every day drawing in pencil from plaster casts, still lifes, or engravings. In the evenings he would point out how she could perfect her art.
Later, she painted in oils and was encouraged to draw animals from nature. The Bonheur children had many pets. As they were poor, the apartments in which they lived in Paris were on higher floors. Remembering one of the pet sheep, Rosa wrote, ``It was a ewe, Jocrisse by name. My brother Isidore ought to know something about this animal for it was he who carried Jocrisse on his shoulders up the six stories.'' That is, six stories every day, since the sheep had to eat in some nearby meadow. Of course, these were not only pets but models for their drawings.
When she was 14, Rosa was permitted to go to the great art museum the Louvre to paint copies of the famous paintings. At the Louvre, Rosa earned her first money for a painting. As there were no color photographs in those days, the only way a person could buy a reproduction of a favorite painting was to get a copy. Rosa's very first one sold as soon as she had finished it.
At 19, she began exhibiting her own animal paintings at the government-sponsored Annual Paris Salon. Soon, she began winning medals. Twenty years later Rosa remembered going to collect her first medal.
``My father, who wanted to accustom me to not count on anyone but myself, sent me all alone. I went with all the courage of my 23 years, presenting myself before the director of the Beaux-Arts who handed me the medal, complimenting me in the name of the King. You can imagine his stupefaction when I responded, `Thank the King for me and be kind enough to add that I will try to do better another time.'''
Rosa used some of the first money she earned to travel around the countryside studying different breeds of livestock. This was a lot more pleasant than drawing them at the slaughterhouse, as she had been forced to do.
When she went afield, she made drawings and small studies that would be later worked up into large paintings. The picture shown here is only 12 by 18 inches. It was probably such a model, as it is a fully realized composition.
A younger animal painter once commented about Rosa, ``... It seems to me that her works prove that she painted animals because she loved them. She painted them for themselves.... She considered them to be integral parts of country life, bathed in light and clothed in the cheerfulness of nature....''