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Rosa Bonheur

Biography

Rosa Bonheur, the daughter of an impoverished French painter, was the most celebrated of all female artists of the 19th century achieving meteoric success with the exhibition of her masterpiece The Horse Fair in 1853, which was bought by Cornelius Vanderbilt for a record price in the 1880s and later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the painting still resides.

At the dawn of the Second Empire in France it became clear that the new society spurned the great ambitions of the history painters of the previous decade, and collectors and patrons were eager to acquire picturesque genre paintings or scenes of landscape and animals.  The naturalistic tendencies of Bonheur’s work, her love of animals, and her personal eccentricities brought worldwide attention and vast popularity in her homeland, England and America.

Bonheur’s influences and inspirations were many and varied.  Early in her career, the artist observed and drew the many animals at the local horse market at the Boulevard de l’Hôpital and the slaughterhouse.  Although rarely mentioned in studies of Bonheur, the great master Theodore Géricault exerted a quiet influence on her work, while Bonheur’s familiarity with the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893) has been well documented.

In 1838 the American artist George Catlin (1796-1872) brought his troupe of Indians and artifacts to Paris, including Indian portraits, hundreds of paintings of the West, and a Crow teepee made of 25 buffalo skins.  For five years, Catlin would remain in the French capitol, his stay culminating with the publication of a twenty-five-plate edition titled Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio.  Bonheur owned a copy of this portfolio, which she cherished and from which she often drew copies. In addition, the famous American painter of the Western landscape, Albert Bierstadt, had loaned Bonheur a large collection of photographs of the American West by the photographer William Henry Jackson.

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Not to be outdone by Catlin’s tour, the legendary icon of the American West, Buffalo Bill, brought The Wild West Show to England in 1887 and then to Paris two years later.  Complete with 115 Indians, numerous Native American artifacts, bison, cowboys, broncos, and a group of vaqueros, The Wild West Show brought Bonheur the special privilege of unlimited access to the troupe grounds.  Rosa spent weeks sketching at Buffalo Bill’s thirty-acre campground near the Bois de Boulogne.  Only eleven paintings of the mounted Indians known as Rocky Bear & Red Shirt emerged from her work.  The two chiefs were close friends of Buffalo Bill, participating in the show by re-enacting famous Indian battles as well as staging equine demonstrations.  Buffalo Bill also accepted the invitation to visit the artist at her magnificent Fountainebleau estate, resulting in a portrait of the Colonel by Bonheur.  That painting now hangs in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.

Rosa Bonheur’s knowledge of the myths and realities of the American West were shaped by the individuals who created the legends - Bodmer, Catlin, Bierstadt, W.H. Jackson, Buffalo Bill, Rocky Bear, and Bonheur’s favorite model, Red Shirt.  Towards the end of her career, all of her inspirations were displaced by the romance and fascination she held for the American West.  Rocky Bear & Red Shirt should be considered an extremely rare and highly representational work of art by Rosa Bonheur, the only female artist to receive the coveted Legion of Honor award, at a time when the famous artist was at the height of her career.