I first took notice of the work of 19th century painter Marie-Rosalie Bonheur, more commonly known as Rosa Bonheur, when I was struck by her beautiful landscape of the Forest of Fontainebleau (images above, bottom) in an exhibition at the National Gallery in DC in 2008. Even among works by Corot, Rousseau, Monet and Sisley, her piece stood out.
I have to admit that I was later a bit disappointed to find that she was not primarily a landscape painter. She was instead best known at the 19th century’s foremost painter of animals. Her superbly painted scenes of horses, cattle, sheep and dogs, as well as her portrayals of wild animals like deer an exotic cats, made her well known in an era when women artists were not easily accepted.
Two paintings, in particular, were very well received, The Horse Fair, (above top, third down with a detail and two preliminaries, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Ploughing in Nevers (above, fifth down, with detail, now in the Musée d’Orsay).
Bonheur studied animal anatomy by dissection and by sketching at markets and cattle fairs, where she often dressed like a man to avoid attention. I believe her accuracy of observation laid the groundwork for many scientific artists who followed. (I don’t know of a direct connection, but to my eye there is a line from her work to that of ground-breaking paleontological and wild life artist Charles R. Knight.)
In addition to painting in oil, Bonheur was also adept at watercolor (as in the painting of lions, above) and various drawing media, as well as several printmaking and sculpture techniques.