Background: Rosa Bonheur, born Marie-Rosalie Bonheur, was born in Bordeaux, Gironde on 16 March 1822. Bonheur was a French animalière, realist artist, and sculptor. As a painter she became famous primarily for two chief works: Ploughing in the Nivernais (in French: Le labourage nivernais, le sombrage), which was first exhibited at the Salon of 1848, and is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris depicts a team of oxen ploughing a field while attended by peasants set against a vast pastoral landscape; and, The Horse Fair (in French: Le marché aux chevaux) (which was exhibited at the Salon of 1853 (finished in 1855) and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. Bonheur is widely considered to have been the most famous female painter of the nineteenth century.
Education: Although she was sent to school like her brothers, she was a disruptive force in the classroom and was consequently expelled from numerous schools.Finally, after trying to apprentice her to a seamstress Raimond agreed to take her education as a painter upon himself. She was twelve at that point and would have been too young to attend the École des Beaux-Arts even if they had accepted women.
As was traditional in the art schools of the period, Bonheur began her artistic training by copying images from drawing books and by sketching from plaster models. As her training progressed she began to make studies of domesticated animals from life, to include horses, sheep, cows,goats, rabbits and other animals in the pastures on the perimeter of Paris, the open fields of Villiers and the (then) still-wild Bois de Boulogne. At age fourteen she began to copy from paintings at the Louvre. Among her favorite painters were Nicholas Poussin and Peter Paul Rubens, but she also copied the paintings of Paulus Potter, Porbus, Louis Léopold Robert, Salvatore Rosa and Karel Dujardin.
She also studied animal anatomy and osteology by visiting the abattoirs of Paris and by performing dissections of animals at the École nationale vétérinaire d’Alfort, the National Veterinary Institute in Paris. There she prepared detailed studies which she would later use as references for her paintings and sculptures. During this period, too, she also met and became friends with the father and son comparative anatomists and zoologists Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire by whom her father was employed to create natural history illustrations.
Achievements: Rosa Bonheur received a French government commission which led to her first great success, Ploughing in 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. Its subject is the horse market held in Paris on the tree-lined boulevard de l’Hôpital, near the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, visible in the background on the left. It led to international fame and recognition and that same year she travelled to Scotland, “en route” 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, though less so in her native France. In France she was decorated with the Legion of Honour by the Empress Eugenie and was promoted to officer of the order.