Marie-Rosalie (Rosa) Bonheur was born in 1822 to parents who belonged to a radical, utopian group founded by Comte de Saint-Simon; this group believed that women should have complete equality with men, and that, in its founder’s words, “The whole of society ought to strive towards the amelioration of the moral and physical existence of the poorest class; society ought to organize itself in the way best adapted for attaining this end.”

Bonheur’s life was far from traditional. Undaunted by entering traditionally male domains, she secured police permission to dress in trousers (‘unladylike’); smoked in public (again, ‘unladylike’); lived with a female companion; never married; and kept her hair cut short like a man’s. Rather than creating watercolors or small oil paintings typical of her female contemporaries, Bonheur instead opted to paint farm animals — sheep, horses and oxen especially — on massive canvases. In spite of these affronts to the “proper” role of women artists, she nonetheless attained a stature equal to the most famous male painters. In 1865, she was made an Officer of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, and was the first woman to be awarded its Grand Cross.This was presented at her studio by Eugenie de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III.

Bonheur was part of French Realism, a movement in which naturalism was coupled with socialist and political messages and which arose after the monarchy was overthrown in 1848. The laborers and peasantry who had challenged the Parisian aristocracy and bourgeoisie became the heroic subjects of this new movement.  Led by Gustave Courbet and Jean-Francois Millet, Realism championed events occuring presently rather than historically.  Toward this end, Bonheur was fastidious about anatomical accuracy in the subjects she painted, working in a slaughterhouse in addition to studying zoology books. Trained primarily by her father, a drawing instructor, Bonheur first exhibited her work in the Salon of 1841. By the Salon of 1848, she had eight paintings accepted and won a first-class medal, sealing her reputation as the era’s most famous painter of farm life. She was awarded a commission by the Second Republic, the republican government that came to power in 1848, and unveiled the result at the Salon of 1850, the 8 foot 8 inch wide Plowing in the Nivernais: The Dressing of Vines.

Rosa Bonheur, Plowing in the Nivernais. 1849.  Oil on canvas. 5’9″ x 8’8″.  Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

The inspiration for this famous painting may be from a novel by George Sand, the pen-name of Baroness Dudevant (1804-1876). In  “The Devil’s Pool” (1846), she wrote about the displacement of peasants and farmers by industrialization, and espoused a return to nature.  Critics contended that this passage inspired Plowing: “But what caught my attention was a truly beautiful sight, a noble subject for a painter.  At the far end of the flat ploughland, a handsome young man was driving a magnificent team [of] oxen.”  An apt description!

To prepare for Plowing in the Nivernais, Bonheur lived for weeks in this rural region of central France, observing the idiosyncratic aspects of its attire, land, animals and tools so that she could portray them accurately.  And she succeeded — when Plowing was unveiled, viewers instantly recognized life in Nivernais.

In this monumental work, the oxen stride diagonally to the right and uphill out of the picture, as if to assert their dominance of agrarian life.  This is a factual, reassuring and unemotional portrayal of farming life, seemingly unaffected by the huge growth of industrialization and in Paris’ population, as well as the uneasiness of life in the Second Republic. This work, along with The Horse Fair, are Bonheur’s most famous artwork — a brilliant legacy of an unconventional woman.

Read more about the background of Rosa Bonheur and those who influenced her.