Rosa Bonheur

From Rosa Bonheur, Fragments of My Autobiography

I was growing fast; my father did not want me to remain altogether ignorant, and he sent me to Madame Gilbert's school, rue de Neuilly. They found me a troublesome inmate; my romping habits had a deplorable influence on my school fellows who became turbulent like me. Once, at playtime, I suggested a game of war. Our arms were wooden swords, and I gave the order for a charge. It was such a disaster for the flower garden! Beautiful roses, the pride of M. Gilbert, were soon scattered on the ground; but this outrageous frolic was the last. M. and Mme. Gilbert refused to keep any longer such a tomboy as me, and sent me home. My parents had now removed to the rue de Tournelles. The first floor of their house had been converted into a studio. There I worked alone, as best I could, whilst my father went into every quarter of Paris to give lessons. One evening, coming home after a trying day of work, he found me putting the finishing touches to my first picture from nature, A Bunch of Cherries. "This is very good indeed," he exclaimed. "You must work seriously now." And I did. From that day I began to copy from casts and from engravings, without, however, neglecting to paint from nature. How much more fascinating it was to me, than to learn grammar and arithmetic! . . .

In 1845 we moved to the rue Romfort. My father had married again, and I went on working harder than ever in our new quarters, situated at the back of the beautiful Parc Monceau, near which there were at that time mostly open fields, farms, dairies. What an opportunity for me to watch the cows, sheep and goats! I had found out a delightful corner at Villiers, near the Parc de Neuilly. For a few months I boarded and lodged with a kind peasant woman. To recount all my experiences there would be telling you over again the story of all beginners.

I had to catch the rapid motion of the animals, the reflection of light and colours on their coats, then different characteristics (for every animal has its individual physiognomy). Therefore, before undertaking the study of a dog, a horse, a sheep, I tried to become familiar with the anatomy, osteology, myology of each of them.

I acquired even a certain knowledge of dissection; and, by the way, I must strongly advise all animal painters to do the same. Another excellent practice is to observe the aspect of plaster models of animals, especially to copy them by lamp light, which gives more distinctness and vibration to the shadows. I can assure those who do not doubt my sincerity as an artist, that I owe all that I know to those patient and conscientious exercises.

To perfect myself in the study of nature, I spent whole days in the Roule slaughterhouse. One must be greatly devoted to art to stand the sight of such horrors, in the midst of the coarsest people. They wondered at seeing a young woman taking interest in their work, and made themselves as disagreeable to me as they possibly could. But when our aims are right we always find help. Providence sent me a protector in the good Monsieur Emile, a butcher of great physical strength. He declared that whoever failed to be polite to me would have to reckon with him. I was thus enabled to work undisturbed.