LABOURAGES NIVERNAIS (PLOUGHING IN NIVERNAIS)
Rosa Bonheur French 1822-1899
SN 433 Oil on Canvas 1850
by Robert Anderson
This French artist started her career at an early date, exhibiting at
the Salon in 1841 at the age of 19. Her father Raymond, an artist and liberal, encouraged
her artistic career and independence. Bonheur is best known for her sympathetic portrayal
of animals which was influenced by prevailing trends in natural history and her own deep
affinity for animals, especially horses. Her art, part of the emerging Realist current in
the mid 1800's, was grounded in direct observation of nature and meticulous
draughtsmanship. She kept a small menagerie, frequented slaughterhouses and dissected
animals to gain anatomical knowledge.
Her painting of Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849) brought her both
critical and popular acclaim. Bonheur's paintings sold well and she was especially popular
in Great Britain and the U.S.A. Her masterpiece, the Horse Fair (1853), combined her
anatomical accuracy and a Romantic sensitivity to color and a dramatic movement rarely
found in her other works. It was this painting that gave her an international reputation.
Awarded the Legion d'Honneur by Princess Eugenie in 1965 she was the first woman to be so
In her personal life Bonheur was a non conformist. She was independent
and financially secure and while she never married she maintained significant
relationships with other women. Her hair was worn short, she smoked, worked in masculine
attire transcending her gender and painted, according to various critics "like a
man". While her reputation declined after her death it has been revived in the 20th
century by feminist art historians. Rosa Bonheur is recognized today as one of the leading
animal painters of the second half of the 19th century and the most famous woman artist of
This painting depicts the plowing of a field in Nivernais, an area near
the city of Nevers in central France. Two teams of oxen are involved. Each team consists
of three pairs of oxen attached with chains to a plow. Four men are depicted, one at each
plow and one to the side of each team holding prodding sticks. The oxen progress from left
to right with freshly turned earth beneath their feet. The sky is a pale blue with puffy
with clouds and a hill with trees can be seen to the left in the background.
The real subject of this painting, however, is the animals in the
landscape which dominate the picture as animals do in all of Bonheur's works.
This painting was one of the most copied works of the 19th century. The
animals and the landscape are depicted with such accuracy that one can almost smell the
fertile soil in the spring afternoon. As noted above, the animals take precedence over the
other figures in the painting. The hair and folds of their skin are very natural in
appearance - their horns, eyes, and muscles all are most realistic and give a feeling of
movement and energy to the picture. In contrast the facial features of the men are either
hidden or indistinct.
There are three versions of this painting. The original hangs in the
Muse'd'Orsay, Paris, another is in the R.W. Norton Art Gallery in Shreeveport, La. and the
third is our Ringling version, painted in 1850.
In 1848 France was in political, economic and social turmoil - laborers
barricaded the streets of Paris and there were many deaths. It was at this time that the
population of France, yearning for peace and stability, made animal painting (as a part of
realism and landscape painting ) popular in the country. People found solace in the image
of what they saw as unchanging - country life. Plowing in Nivernais was inspired by a
novel of George Sand called the Devil's Pond, which described the lives of peasants and
the cycles of nature.
Plowing in Nivernais was sold in 1866 when French Salon paintings were
in vogue for a price equivalent to more than $200,000. John Ringling bought the painting
for $230 in 1929 - a vivid example of how an artist can fall from favor as taste changes.