Unveiled at the Paris Salon of 1853, Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair was an instant sensation. The great canvas, more than sixteen feet long, toured internationally for two years; soon, the image circulated in smaller painted versions and printed reproductions. Featuring some twenty horses and nearly forty grooms, dealers, and prospective buyers, the composition teems with an unruly vitality barely contained by the overall disciplined structure. Various breeds make up the parade, including the massive, dappled-white Percherons with knotted tails at center right. Bonheur knew her subject well: though women were barred from the horse market on the Boulevard de l’Hôpital in Paris, she went regularly in male disguise to study the scene firsthand.
Undefeated by obstacles impeding women with professional ambitions, Bonheur became the most renowned animalier of her time, bringing increased gravitas to her chosen genre. She hailed from a family of artists; her father trained her not only in painting and sculpture but also in a freethinking philosophy that bolstered her independence. Like Bonheur herself, The Horse Fair is categorically unconventional. It departs from the fashionable English pictorial treatment of horses as prized property of the landed gentry; Bonheur’s powerful animals are instead destined for punishing labor in the city. Energetically heroic rather than serenely bucolic, the picture avoids as well the orientalizing exoticism of Delacroix in favor of quotidian reality.
Nor is there a trace of sentimentality, a minor marvel given Bonheur’s affinity for equine subjects. (Her empathic identification with horses was such that when she had to dress in women’s clothes, she described herself as “in harness.”) Art historian James Saslow marshalled evidence in 1991 to argue convincingly that the blue-smocked figure riding a sorrel mount near the center of the composition, looking directly at the viewer, is a self-portrait. Thus we find Bonheur abjuring the royal and military associations of equestrian portraiture, proudly appropriating the genre for herself. Where was her Baudelaire, one wonders, a poet to celebrate this highly original painter of the spectacle of modern life?