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.
Bonheur at times painted her subjects up close, in the style of human portraits, with backgrounds that almost veer into abstraction. El Cid (1879), a majestic lion portrait, has only one faintly visible, craggy snowcap to suggest a mountainous horizon in an otherwise hazy environment—a dreamy gradient from sky blue to sandy tan. An unexpected Impressionistic influence is evident in the loosely painted impasto moss behind a deer in Le Roi de la forêt (1878), while in the foreground, each individual hair on the creature is painstakingly rendered. The artist focuses her attention—and her viewers’—on animals rather than landscapes, an emphasis that remains rare in artistic representations of the natural world.
Though Bonheur has enjoyed something of a cult following then and now, for good reason, clouds of domination and imperialism loom over her work. Some scenes depict overt subjugation. Barbaro après la chasse (ca. 1858) shows a dog afforded only several inches of chain while tied to a wall. The work begs questions about the nature of Bonheur’s relations to animals—we know from her autobiography that she believed animals have souls, but the painting still suggests a firm hierarchy. Hovering in the backdrop to Bonheur’s career is the colonial practice that gave her access to various species in the first place: beginning in 1793, the French imported animals to fill zoos for the explicit purpose of showing off “exotic” conquests from faraway lands. Like most of her European contemporaries, she was silent on this subject. She was also a close friend of Buffalo Bill, so named for having purportedly killed more than 4,000 buffalo in just 18 months as part of the United States Army’s effort to “control” the Native American population. The showman romanticized and popularized cowboy stories, and Bonheur’s portrait, on view here, presents him seated heroically atop a white horse.
Bonheur’s apparent fascination with her subjects brought with it the kind of othering, exoticizing gaze that is difficult to avoid within the power dynamics she navigated—between painter and subject, human and nonhuman. (A racial dynamic is evident too in her paintings of Native Americans, who are rendered more muddily and positioned less regally than Buffalo Bill or the big cats.) In her life and in her art, she pushed back against some forms of domination while benefiting from others. Her work makes plain just how fraught our interspecies relationships are, even as it models inspiring ways of communing. This is the brutal and riveting paradox of art: artists who help us imagine new and better ways of being often cannot avoid indexing the flawed beliefs of the societies in which they work.