Home Historical art exhibition on the naturalist paintings of Rosa Bonheur opens in Paris

exhibition on the naturalist paintings of Rosa Bonheur opens in Paris


Two rabbits nibble nervously on carrots, their ears trembling. A wounded eagle stretches in the air. A deer stops in a forest, its honeyed eyes fleetingly fixed on ours. The animals in Rosa Bonheur’s works overflow with emotion. “His realism is his way of respecting them,” explains Leïla Jarbouai, curator of an exhibition devoted to the French artist of the 19th century at the Musée d’Orsay. “She conveys the expression of their souls through their eyes and attitudes, painting them with care and fidelity. These are subjects in themselves.

Coinciding with the bicentenary of the birth of Bonheur, this career survey will bring together around 200 works, from paintings and drawings to sculptures and photographs. “In France, it is associated with paintings of cattle”, says Jarbouai, especially Plowing in the Nivernais (1849), which earned him a medal at the Salon for his meticulous attention to shiny oxen and freshly turned earth. “The exhibition will reveal to visitors his paintings of wild beasts, horses and other wild animals. This will show that she cannot be reduced to a painter of country life and livestock.

Devotion to naturalism

Bonheur was trained by her painter father and first exhibited at the Salon at the age of 19. His dedication to naturalism and capturing the individuality of animals won over his admirers. In the early 1850s, she frequented the horse markets of Paris, wearing men’s clothes (with police permission) to avoid attracting unwanted attention by drawing.

“His realism is a way of respecting them”: Rosa Bonheur’s painting of a wounded eagle, The Wounded Eagle (circa 1870) Photo: © Museum Associates LACMA; RMN Grand Palais

Unknown sketches by Bonheur will be exhibited, including a charcoal drawing on linen for his most famous painting, The horse fair (1852-1855), a monumental scene of chattering hooves, sniffling muzzles and loose manes. Recently discovered by the team of the Château de By, the museum dedicated to the artist on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, the work has been restored for its first public appearance. Jarbouai is also keen to draw attention to the unexplored romantic side of Bonheur’s work, visible in an inky blue lithograph of wolves and a lone horseman in Scotland.

Selling his art directly to collectors, Bonheur became known at home and abroad. The Belgian dealer Ernest Gambart, who made prints of his paintings and organized publicity tours, participated in his international success. After 1853, however, she rarely participated in the Salon. “French visitors no longer knew his work,” says Jarbouai. “They knew the woman, the legend, better than her art.” According to the curator, the sale of thousands of studies from her studio in 1900 contributed to “the collapse in the price of paintings”. In other words, his reputation plummeted. “The history of art and the notion of the avant-garde did not leave room for the animal art of Bonheur,” adds Jarbouai. With this exhibition, the Musée d’Orsay wishes to give space back to the artist and his creations.

Rosa Happiness (1822-1899)Orsay MuseumParis, October 18-January 15, 2023