Highland Cattle By Rosa Bonheur
Highland Cattle By Rosa Bonheur

The majority of its clients, especially tourists enjoying a drink or lunch next to the Asnières bridge on the river Seine, appear quite proud of the name on the glass-walled café-restaurant on the boat. Rosa Bonheur certainly is a legendary figure of French art history and the Orsay Museum is currently hosting a spectacular exhibition of her breathtaking paintings.

Bonheur was one of the most celebrated artists of the 19th century, whose works were shown in exhibitions not only all over Europe, but across the Atlantic in the United States as well. She stayed in the United States for many months, painting magnificent scenes of wildlife, including those of the mythological Wild West figure called Buffalo Bill, with who she entered into a life-long friendship, often inviting him to France.

Born in 1822 in the city of Bordeaux, southwest of France, the six-year-old Rosa would move with her parents to Paris, where she would learn art from her father Oscar-Raymond Bonheur, a well-known landscape painter of his time.

Though she showed immediate signs of talent in creating all the art techniques her father revealed to her, the little girl’s fascination would stick, for her entire lifetime, to open air scenes and wild beasts. One never tires of viewing, even after having seen them a thousand times before, these astonishing creations that appear to be moving with life.

A Paris museum showcases the naturalist paintings of one of France’s most legendary woman artists

Rosa’s charisma with nature and animals would keep on growing as she continued working on her canvases. While still a teenager, she visited the forest of Boulogne and the green fields of Asnières around Paris everyday all by herself, staying there for hours, sitting quietly and watching sheep, goats, cows, horses and all the other animals and sketching them on paper sheets.

By the time she turned 20, she would achieve the perfection she was striving for and her mind-boggling, gigantic painting The Horse Fair (1855), measuring eight feet by 16 feet, would bring her intense international fame, to the extent that she would be invited by Queen Victoria to come and paint the wild scenes of Scotland.

Her works there, such as Highland Shepherd (1859) and A Scottish Raid (1860), were immediate international successes and much appreciated by the Queen herself, who received a youthful Rosa at the royal palace in order to meet her personally.

Soon enough, Rosa’s reputation took international proportion and she was able to exhibit her works in various art shows in many cities of Europe and even in the United States. Given her mind-boggling successes all over the world, she would be awarded, in 1865, the most respected French distinction of the Legion of Honour, being the first-ever woman to receive it.

Though the painter herself lived and worked in a much earlier period, long before the invention of cinema, it is difficult for audiences today not to think of a colour movie on a Cinemascope screen while viewing her gigantic canvases of horses, sheep and wild animals with forests, lakes and hills in the background.

Despite national and international acclaim of her talent, Rosa Bonheur would simply remain dedicated to the peace and grandeur of nature and of forests with wild animals, rather than a turbulent city life with bourgeois evening parties to which she was incessantly invited in Paris.

The sales of her works all over the world allowed her, by the year 1859, to move to an abandoned chateau next to the Fontainebleau forest, where she lived and worked until her death at age 77 in 1899. Today the Chateau de By remains a museum dedicated to Rosa Bonheur’s work.

Rosa Bonheur’s exhibition will continue at the Orsay Museum, Paris until March 5, 2023.

The writer is an art critic based in Paris.

He may be reached at ZafMasud@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 4th, 2022

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