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 honored.
    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 her time.
    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.