It is tempting to exalt Rosa Bonheur as a proto-ecofeminist icon. In the 19th century, the French painter blazed trails for women in the arts. Bonheur was the first of our gender to win both the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor and the gold medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle. A leading animalier, she received a special cross-dressing permit (since the practice was illegal), ostensibly to observe certain scenes—horse fairs, slaughterhouses—where a woman’s presence might have caused a stir. All this she did while advancing the still unfashionable cause of framing animals as themselves worthy subjects for fine art. A committed realist, she did not present animals as metaphors or status symbols, nor as characters in fables or allegories. She rendered them as they are, rather than subsuming them into human narratives.
Bonheur’s retrospective, recently on view at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux and opening this week at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, makes plain that her resplendent paintings would not be what they are had she not had close relationships with her subjects. The artist spent much of her time communing with and caring for other species: she adopted lions, gazelles, parrots, and countless other creatures, housing them in her Bordeaux menagerie. Not content simply to paint them from a distance or rely on eyesight alone, she learned their ways. In the show, her undated studies of big cats are arranged in a progression that first shows them sleeping, then eating and hunting. They record her growing comfort with the animals’ ferocity, an experience she also describes in her autobiography. In a few of these sketches, the draftswoman’s proportions are uncharacteristically wonky, recalling how she wrote about faltering humbly when attempting to capture such regal creatures. Her subjects seldom sat still—and, in some cases, were capable of devouring her.