The work of French animal painter Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) represents “not only a triumph for gender, but also for genre,” writes Catherine Hewitt in her biography Art Is a Tyrant: The Unconventional Life of Rosa Bonheur, out tomorrow in the US from Icon Books. At a time when few women became famous artists, Bonheur helped elevate “animal painting to a respected status, thus shattering the traditional hierarchy which pitched history and religious painting as superior to landscape.” The artist was celebrated not only for her artistic contributions and trailblazing feminism, but also for her eccentric lifestyle: she was known to dress like a man, and to live among countless exotic pets in the French countryside, where her home recently reopened to the public as a museum. Her most famous and most beloved creature was Fatmah the lioness, and though the big cat’s presence at Bonheur’s Château de By in Fontainebleau caused quite a stir, in reality Fatmah was a calm and loving creature who would follow Rosa around like a loyal dog, then snuggle up by her side. Bonheur, whose Musée d’Orsay retrospective is scheduled for 2022, studied her animal models intimately. And bold as she was, her comfort with big beasts came only gradually. Below is an excerpt from Art Is a Tyrant that details one of Bonheur’s first experiences drawing a lion from life. —Eds.
The [Franco-Prussian] war, the siege, the Commune, perhaps the sense of powerlessness against it all, had led Rosa to start thinking about more ferocious predators. Lions and tigers began to obsess her. Their regal appearance, sleek movements, total command of their powerful physique and that inherent potential to destroy—these creatures were the true masters of nature.
In 1872, she had produced a painted sketch entitled Couching Lion. The piece showed a majestic cat reclining against a mountainous backdrop, its head raised, its gaze directed to the right, out of the canvas. Seemingly motile shades of ochre, ivory and burnt sienna were applied in harmony to evoke the velvety sheen of its coat in the sunlight and suggest the folds of skin beneath it as the animal sat at rest, its limbs gathered neatly underneath its large frame and its soft paws resting in front of it. Rosa’s brush gently traced the beast’s powerful musculature to create a silent ode to the subject’s apparent docility and latent force. Big cats now became Rosa’s raison d’être.
By the mid-1870s, the metamorphosis of Mlle Rosa Bonheur’s creative oeuvre was a source of widespread—and very public—interest. Aware of her specialism and her proclivity, it occurred to the recently retired circus entrepreneur M. Louis Dejean (the mastermind behind the wildly popular Cirque d’été and the lately renamed Cirque d’hiver) that the great animal artist might like to sketch one of the lions he allowed to roam freely around his property, the Château de Saint-Leu near Melun. The prospect of studying his tame lioness Pierrette at close hand would surely appeal to the animal lover—and the association of Rosa’s name would do no harm to his business legacy or his reputation.
Rosa was instinctively wary. A number of lions had been brought back to France after the Algerian campaign in 1830. Though comfortable with farm and forest creatures, big cats were a new and unfamiliar species. Rosa knew she could calm a raging bull and pacify a startled pony. But she had no experience which would allow her to predict how a lion might react to being studied and that made her unusually nervous. Besides, models could be readily observed—if only from a distance—in purpose-built enclosures like the Jardin des Plantes. But in her heart, Rosa could not settle with such a facile approach to research when she could gain a more intimate knowledge of a beast. So with [her companion] Nathalie’s encouragement, Rosa surmounted her nerves and arranged to visit the animal.
When the ladies arrived at the Château de Saint-Leu, Nathalie’s courage did not waver. She marched straight up to the lioness and ran her hand along the creature’s back; the animal did not object. Rosa was awestruck.
From that day, a series of trips to Saint-Leu permitted Rosa to study the lioness’s unique physical and temperamental blueprint. And the more her eye followed the beast and her pencil grew accustomed to its curves, the more Rosa’s respect for big cats mounted. As she worked, the lioness grew increasingly easy in her company too, and, Rosa later recalled, would stand guard over her materials protectively whenever she took a rest from painting. Pierrette had been bottle-fed from birth and so had grown accustomed to human contact. She was tame to the point where a cat could sit and eat between her paws, not to mention amiable, for she gleefully played with the horse and donkey which were kept near her. To Rosa’s amazement, the lioness even took herself from view when nature called.
Professionally, lions marked a new departure for Rosa, and her studies were soon amassing.
Adapted from Art Is a Tyrant: The Unconventional Life of Rosa Bonheur by Catherine Hewitt.