See Now: Rosa Bonheur at the Musée d’Orsay

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See Now: Rosa Bonheur at the Musée d’Orsay
A curious fact about Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) is that the considerable fame she enjoyed during her lifetime faded away when she died. Her wonderful animal paintings sold for large sums in 19th-century Paris and abroad and she was the first female artist to be honored with the Légion d’Honneur. When the Empress Eugénie presented the award, her praise for Rosa’s talent was high indeed, and she also hinted that perhaps more women should be recognized in this way. “Genius,” she said, “has no sex.” Yet Rosa Bonheur was barely mentioned during the 20th century and when she began to come back into focus more recently, it was initially more as a feminist role model than for her artistic achievements. Rosa had succeeded on her own terms, breaking many of the “rules” of the society in which she lived. She shunned marriage, earned her own living, enjoyed a long and happy lesbian relationship and dressed as she pleased, in the trousers which were practical for the artist’s studio and for the countryside which she loved to paint. It’s hardly surprising then, that in recent years she has become an example for the feminist movement. But for Rosa, her art was everything and so it’s fitting that in this year, the 200th anniversary of her birth, it is that which is the focus of our interest, most notably in the exhibition currently showing at the Musée d’Orsay. Édouard-Louis Dubufe (1819-1883) et Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) Portrait de Rosa Bonheur 1857 Huile sur toile Dépôt au Musée du château de Versailles © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / photo Gérard Blot. Some 200 works – paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs – have been gathered from collections all over Europe and the U.S. and as soon as you start to look at her work, you will see her very distinctive style. Rosa spent her early years in the countryside near Bordeaux, missed it dreadfully when the family moved to Paris when she was seven, and made all things rural her subject matter as she developed as an artist. By 1860, at the height of her fame and now wealthy, she was able to buy the Château de By, a few miles from Fontainebleau, and she spent her last 40 years there, painting the animals in the forest surrounding her home and her own many pets, which included four lions! The style in which she painted animals was revolutionary: realistic and with an extraordinary attention to detail. Without being sentimental, she captured the spirit of the animals she depicted, conveying their individuality and their feelings in a way no artist before had attempted to do. Compare the majesty of the stag in “King of the Forest” with the agony of the bird in “An Injured Eagle” or the wild beauty of the horses in “Wheat Threshing in the Camargue.” In every work, each animal’s spirit is there, firstly because it was important to her to convey their very essence as she painted and secondly because she had the technical mastery to do so. Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) L’aigle blessé Vers 1870 Huile sur toile Etats-Unis, Los Angeles (CA), Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) Digital Image (C) Museum Associates / LACMA. Licenciée par Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image LACMA
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Lead photo credit : George Achille-Fould (1865-1951) Rosa Bonheur dans son atelier 1893 Huile sur toile Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts © Mairie de Bordeaux, musée des Beaux-Arts, photo L. Gauthier

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.