Labourage Nivernais by Rosa Bonheur SN 433
Docent training Tour Presentation - April 11, 2000 by Lin Vertefeuille
In this painting we see oxen plowing a field. As we look carefully we count twelve six in each team. Notice they are not wearing yokes. The team drivers have raised sticks and are directing them by voice command.
The oxen look so real! We can enjoy the different colored shaggy textures of their fur. Saliva drips from their mouths. They have wonderful bovine eyes, especially the white one in the middle. Each ox is an individual with its own physical characteristics and movements.
Broad rimmed hats shade the first driver and ploughman. The face of the other driver is in sunlight, his body obscured by his team. All the human figures are less distinctive than the oxen. The first driver's movement and interaction with his team has amusing details: as he walks in pace with the oxen, notice his left foot lifts out of his wooden shoe; as he shouts and raises his stick, the brown ox next to him responds by lowering his head while the white ox turns his head away.
The dark plowed soil is overturned in large clumps. Grass grows in patches with weeds sticking up and bent here and there - We can almost smell the newly plowed earth. It is evident that the artist who painted such a realistic scene really knew animals and farm life.
This painting titled, Labourage Nivernais , Ploughing in Nivernais, was painted in 1850 by a female French artist, Rosa Bonheur. She dressed in pants as a man, when she did studies of animals in rugged rural settings and in slaughterhouses - quite unusual for a woman in the1800's. For over sixty years she was dedicated to an accurate, depiction of farm animals and never tried to sentimentalize or humanize them. The first painting of Labourage Nivernais was commissioned in 1849 by the French government after she won first prize in the Salon of 1848, in Paris, for her painting of red oxen. Labourage Nivernais and her other painting, the Horse Fair, sky-rocketed her to fame. She was acclaimed in France, Germany and England and was the first woman to receive France's highest award, the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor. Labourage Nivernais was so successful, she painted and signed our painting variant in 1850.
This magnificent frame is original to this painting and illustrates her popularity in 1850. As you can see, her name was important enough to be prominently displayed on the top of the frame.
The success of a painting with the subject of oxen plowing a field is understandable when we consider what was going on in France at that time. In June 1848, Paris was in violent political, economic and social turmoil. Thousands of wage laborers barricaded streets in Paris and thousands were killed or injured. Fear of its spreading influence had an unsettling effect on people in France and Europe and was reflected in their taste in art. People began to yearn for tranquility, stability and something reassuring. They found solace in their image of what they thought was unchanging - country life. In Labourage Nivernais the subject plowing shows constancy in life - whatever else is happening, it is spring (fall?) and the farmer must plow and life goes on as it always has. Labourage Nivernais is a tranquil scene, pleasing to the viewer. Rosa Bonheur 's sky is the blue of a clear fresh sunny day. The hills and the long line of oxen create a continuous flow across the canvas that is pleasing and comfortable to our eyes. I don't know if twelve oxen is an excessive amount for plowing a field or just common practice in 1850 - but this unbroken procession adds to the harmony of the painting.
Labourage Nivernais was sold in 1866 when French Salon paintings were in vogue for a price equivalent to more $200,000 today. John Ringling particularly admired Rosa Bonheur's animal paintings. He purchased this painting in 1929 for $230. This is a vivid example of how an artist can fall from favor as taste changes.
Now before we leave this painting, I'd like you to step close enough to examine the brushwork on the oxen's fur and overturned soil. The image may no longer be recognizable. Now step back a few feet and enjoy Rosa Bonheur's wonderful illusion of real oxen plowing a field.