In our lesson on landscapes and the natural world in 19th century visual culture, we discussed animal portraits. The animal portraits that were brought up were hilariously proportioned to show off the bulk of the animal, the proportions were exaggerated by the artist at the request of the patron so their animal seemed even more impressive. Since we were talking about 19th century animal portraits, I thought it was appropriate to bring up Rosa Bonheur, who was considered to be the greatest animal painter of the 19th century.
Bonheur did not confine to any traditional standards for women and she did not try to hide her true self. Female artists already had a hard time being accepted, and then on top of that Bonheur was also openly lesbian, so she faced bigotry in her life but fought to be accepted as herself.1
While her male counterparts were painting ridiculously proportioned animals, Bonheur was interested in anatomically accurate animals in their natural setting. She would visit many farms to sketch and eventually kept farm animals at her home! Her art was recognized at her first showing in the Paris Salon, 1841.2
As a female artist myself, I admire Bonheur for staying true to herself and not letting men and society confine her regarding her self-expression. Apparently every six months Bonheur even had to renew a government permit saying she was allowed to wear pants in public because pants on a woman were so scandalous!3 I feel that in many ways women are still heavily restricted by society on what they can and cannot wear because our bodies are sexualised, but at least we don’t need a government permit to wear pants. I feel that women’s bodies are overly sexualized in professional settings where what they wear is restricted because “it shows off too many curves,” also in schools where young girls are given strict and often unreasonable dress codes when the young boys are given hardly any dress code.4
I do feel that women are omitted from art discussions a lot, sometimes on purpose or sometimes history has just forgotten them. Bonheur was very much recognized for her work at the time by Emperor Napoleon III and Queen Victoria, which is quite an accomplishment.5 Even though Bonheur was not included in this lesson, I was very glad that Julia Margaret Cameron and her work were. It is important for us as the next generation of artists, teachers, curators, and numerous other professions to keep the work of female artists and their memory alive.
As a female artist, I have Rosie Bonheur and countless other women to thank for paving the way for me to be accepted as an artist and to have my work appreciated.