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Rosa Bonheur

In a simple home in Paris could have been seen, in 1829, Raymond
Bonheur and his little family,--Rosa, seven years old, August,
Isadore, and Juliette. He was a man of fine talent in painting, but
obliged to spend his time in giving drawing-lessons to support his
children. His wife, Sophie, gave lessons on the piano, going from
house to house all day long, and sometimes sewing half the night, to
earn a little more for the necessities of life.
Hard work and poverty soon bore its usual fruit, and the tired young
mother died in 1833. The three oldest children were sent to board with
a plain woman, "La mere Catherine," in the Champs Elysees, and the
youngest was placed with relatives. For two years this good woman
cared for the children, sending them to school, though she was greatly
troubled because Rosa persisted in playing in the woods of the Bois
de Boulogne, gathering her arms full of daisies and marigolds, rather
than to be shut up in a schoolroom. "I never spent an hour of fine
weather indoors during the whole of the two years," she has often said
since those days.
Finally the father married again and brought the children home. The
two boys were placed in school, and M. Bonheur paid their way by
giving drawing lessons three times a week in the institution. If Rosa
did not love school, she must be taught something useful, and she was
accordingly placed in a sewing establishment to become a seamstress.
The child hated sewing, ran the needle into her fingers at every
stitch, cried for the fresh air and sunshine, and finally, becoming
pale and sickly, was taken back to the Bonheur home. The anxious
painter would try his child once more in school; so he arranged that
she should attend, with compensation met in the same way as for his
boys. Rosa soon became a favorite with the girls in the Fauborg
St. Antoine School, especially because she could draw such witty
caricatures of the teachers, which she pasted against the wall, with
bread chewed into the consistency of putty. The teachers were not
pleased, but so struck were they with the vigor and originality of the
drawings, that they carefully preserved the sketches in an album.
The girl was far from happy. Naturally sensitive--as what poet or
painter was ever born otherwise?--she could not bear to wear a calico
dress and coarse shoes, and eat with an iron spoon from a tin cup,
when the other girls wore handsome dresses, and had silver mugs and
spoons. She grew melancholy, neglected her books, and finally became
so ill that she was obliged to be taken home.
And now Raymond Bonheur very wisely decided not to make plans for his
child for a time, but see what was her natural tendency. It was well
that he made this decision in time, before she had been spoiled by his
well-meant but poor intentions.
Left to herself, she constantly hung about her father's studio, now
drawing, now modeling, copying whatever she saw him do. She seemed
never to be tired, but sang at her work all the day long.
Monsieur Bonheur suddenly awoke to the fact that his daughter had
great talent. He began to teach her carefully, to make her accurate in
drawing, and correct in perspective. Then he sent her to the Louvre to
copy the works of the old masters. Here she worked with the greatest
industry and enthusiasm, not observing anything that was going on
around her. Said the director of the Louvre, "I have never seen an
example of such application and such ardor for work."
One day an elderly English gentleman stopped beside her easel, and
said: "Your copy, my child, is superb, faultless. Persevere as you
have begun, and I prophesy that you will be a great artist." How glad
those few words made her! She went home thinking over to herself the
determination she had made in the school when she ate with her iron
spoon, that sometime she would be as famous as her schoolmates, and
have some of the comforts of life.
Her copies of the old masters were soon sold, and though they brought
small prices, she gladly gave the money to her father, who needed it
now more than ever. His second wife had two sons when he married her,
and now they had a third, Germain, and every cent that Rosa could
earn was needed to help support seven children. "La mamiche," as
they called the new mother, was an excellent manager of the meagre
finances, and filled her place well.
Rosa was now seventeen, loving landscape, historical, and genre
painting, perhaps equally; but happening to paint a goat, she was so
pleased in the work, that she determined to make animal painting a
specialty. Having no money to procure models, she must needs make long
walks into the country on foot to the farms. She would take a piece of
bread in her pocket, and generally forget to eat it. After working
all day, she would come home tired, often drenched with rain, and her
shoes covered with mud.
She took other means to study animals. In the outskirts of Paris were
great _abattoirs_, or slaughter-pens. Though the girl tenderly loved
animals, and shrank from the sight of suffering, she forced herself to
see the killing, that she might know how to depict the death agony
on canvas. Though obliged to mingle more or less with drovers and
butchers, no indignity was ever offered her. As she sat on a bundle of
hay, with her colors about her, they would crowd around to look at
the pictures, and regard her with honest pride. The world soon
learns whether a girl is in earnest about her work, and treats her
The Bonheur family had moved to the sixth story of a tenement house
in the Rue Rumfort, now the Rue Malesherbes. The sons, Auguste and
Isadore, had both become artists; the former a painter, the latter a
sculptor. Even little Juliette was learning to paint. Rosa was working
hard all day at her easel, and at night was illustrating books, or
molding little groups of animals for the figure-dealers. All the
family were happy despite their poverty, because they had congenial
On the roof, Rosa improvised a sort of garden, with honeysuckles,
sweet-peas, and nasturtiums, and here they kept a sheep, with long,
silky wool, for a model. Very often Isadore would take him on his back
and carry him down the six flights of stairs,--the day of elevators
had not dawned,--and after he had enjoyed grazing, would bring him
back to his garden home. It was a docile creature, and much loved by
the whole family. For Rosa's birds, the brothers constructed a net,
which they hung outside the window, and then opened the cage into it.
At nineteen Rosa was to test the world, and see what the critics would
say. She sent to the Fine Arts Exhibition two pictures, "Goats and
Sheep" and "Two Rabbits." The public was pleased, and the press gave
kind notices. The next year "Animals in a Pasture," a "Cow lying in a
Meadow," and a "Horse for sale," attracted still more attention. Two
years later she exhibited twelve pictures, some from her father and
brother being hung on either side of hers, the first time they had
been admitted. More and more the critics praised, and the pathway of
the Bonheur family grew less thorny.
Then, in 1849, when she was twenty-seven, came the triumph. Her
magnificent picture, "Cantal Oxen," took the gold medal, and was
purchased by England. Horace Vernet, the president of the commission
of awards, in the midst of a brilliant assembly, proclaimed the new
laureate, and gave her, in behalf of the government, a superb Sevres
Raymond Bonheur seemed to become young again at this fame of his
child. It brought honors to him also, for he was at once made director
of the government school of design for girls. But the release from
poverty and anxiety came too late, and he died the same year, greatly
lamented by his family. "He had grand ideas," said his daughter, "and
had he not been obliged to give lessons for our support, he would have
been more known, and to-day acknowledged with other masters."
Rosa was made director in his place, and Juliette became a professor
in the school. This same year appeared her "Plowing Scene in the
Nivernais," now in the Luxembourg Gallery, thought to be her most
important work after her "Horse Fair." Orders now poured in upon her,
so that she could not accede to half the requests for work. A rich
Hollander offered her one thousand crowns for a painting which she
could have wrought in two hours; but she refused.
Four years later, after eighteen long months of preparatory studies,
her "Horse Fair" was painted. This created the greatest enthusiasm
both in England and America. It was sold to a gentleman in England for
eight thousand dollars, and was finally purchased by A. T. Stewart, of
New York, for his famous collection. No one who has seen this picture
will ever forget the action and vigor of these Normandy horses. In
painting it, a petted horse, it is said, stepped back upon the canvas,
putting his hoof through it, thus spoiling the work of months.
So greatly was this picture admired, that Napoleon III. was urged to
bestow upon her the Cross of the Legion of Honor, entitled her from
French usage. Though she was invited to the state dinner at the
Tuileries, always given to artists to whom the Academy of Fine Arts
has awarded its highest honors, Napoleon had not the courage to give
it to her, lest public opinion might not agree with him in conferring
it upon a woman. Possibly he felt, more than the world knew, the
insecurity of his throne.
Henry Bacon, in the _Century_, thus describes the way in which Rosa
Bonheur finally received the badge of distinction. "The Emperor,
leaving Paris for a short summer excursion in 1865, left the Empress
as Regent. From the imperial residence at Fontainebleau it was only a
short drive to By (the home of Mademoiselle Bonheur). The countersign
at the gate was forced, and unannounced, the Empress entered the
studio where Mademoiselle Rosa was at work. She rose to receive the
visitor, who threw her arms about her neck and kissed her. It was only
a short interview. The imperial vision had departed, the rumble of
the carriage and the crack of the outriders' whips were lost in the
distance. Then, and not till then, did the artist discover that as the
Empress had given the kiss, she had pinned upon her blouse the Cross
of the Legion of Honor." Since then she has received the Leopold Cross
of Honor from the King of Belgium, said to be the first ever conferred
upon a woman; also a decoration from the King of Spain. Her brother
Auguste, now dead, received the Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1867,
two years after Rosa.
In preparing to paint the "Horse Fair" and other similar pictures,
which have brought her much into the company of men, she has found it
wise to dress in male costume. A laughable incident is related of this
mode of dress. One day when she returned from the country, she found a
messenger awaiting to announce to her the sudden illness of one of
her young friends. Rosa did not wait to change her male attire, but
hastened to the bedside of the young lady. In a few minutes after
her arrival, the doctor, who had been sent for, entered, and seeing a
young man, as he supposed, seated on the side of the bed, with his
arm round the neck of the sick girl, thought he was an intruder, and
retreated with all possible speed. "Oh! run after him! He thinks you
are my lover, and has gone and left me to die!" cried the sick girl.
Rosa flew down stairs, and soon returned with the modest doctor.
She also needs this mannish costume, for her long journeys over
the Pyrenees into Spain or in the Scottish Highlands. She is always
accompanied by her most intimate friend, Mademoiselle Micas, herself
an artist of repute, whose mother, a widow, superintends the home for
the two devoted friends.
Sometimes in the Pyrenees these two ladies see no one for six weeks
but muleteers with their mules. The people in these lonely mountain
passes live entirely upon the curdled milk of sheep. Once Rosa Bonheur
and her friend were nearly starving, when Mademoiselle Micas obtained
a quantity of frogs, and covering the hind legs with leaves, roasted
them over a fire. On these they lived for two days.
In Scotland she painted her exquisite "Denizens of the Mountains,"
"Morning in the Highlands," and "Crossing a Loch in the Highlands." In
England she was treated like a princess. Sir Edwin Landseer, whom some
persons thought she would marry, is reported to have said, when he
first looked upon her "Horse Fair," "It surpasses me, though it's
a little hard to be beaten by a woman." On her return to France she
brought a skye-terrier, named "Wasp," of which she is very fond, and
for which she has learned several English phrases. When she speaks to
him in English, he wags his tail most appreciatively.
Rosa Bonheur stands at the head of her profession, an acknowledged
master. Her pictures bring enormous sums, and have brought her wealth.
A "View in the Pyrenees" has been sold for ten thousand dollars, and
some others for twice that sum.
She gives away much of her income. She has been known to send to the
_Mont de Piete_ her gold medals to raise funds to assist poor artists.
A woman artist, who had been refused help by several wealthy painters,
applied to Rosa Bonheur, who at once took down from the wall a small
but valuable painting, and gave it to her, from which she received a
goodly sum. A young sculptor who greatly admired her work, enclosed
twenty dollars, asking her for a small drawing, and saying that this
was all the money he possessed. She immediately sent him a sketch
worth at least two hundred dollars. She has always provided most
generously for her family, and for servants who have grown old in her
She dresses very simply, always wearing black, brown, or gray, with
a close fitting jacket over a plain skirt. When she accepts a social
invitation, which is very rare, she adorns her dress with a lace
collar, but without other ornament. Her working dress is usually a
long gray linen or blue flannel blouse, reaching nearly from head to
foot. She has learned that the conventional tight dress of women
is not conducive to great mental or physical power. She is small
in stature, with dainty hands and feet, blue eyes, and a noble and
intelligent face.
She is an indefatigable worker, rising usually at six in the morning,
and painting throughout the day.
So busy is she that she seldom permits herself any amusements. On one
occasion she had tickets sent her for the theatre. She worked till the
carriage was announced. "_Je suis prete_," said Rosa, and went to the
play in her working dress. A daintily gloved man in the box next to
hers looked over in disdain, and finally went into the vestibule and
found the manager.
"Who is this woman in the box next to mine?" he said, in a rage.
"She's in an old calico dress, covered with paint and oil. The odor is
terrible. Turn her out. If you do not, I will never enter your theatre
The manager went to the box, and returning, informed him that it was
the great painter.
"Rosa Bonheur!" he gasped. "Who'd have thought it? Make my apology to
her. I dare not enter her presence again."
She usually walks at the twilight, often thinking out new subjects for
her brush, at that quiet hour. She said to a friend: "I have been a
faithful student since I was ten years old. I have copied no master. I
have studied Nature, and expressed to the best of my ability the ideas
and feelings with which she has inspired me. Art is an absorbent--a
tyrant. It demands heart, brain, soul, body, the entireness of the
votary. Nothing less will win its highest favor. I wed art. It is my
husband, my world, my life-dream, the air I breathe. I know nothing
else, feel nothing else, think nothing else, My soul finds in it
the most complete satisfaction.... I have no taste for general
society,--no interest in its frivolities. I only seek to be known
through my works. If the world feel and understand them, I have
succeeded.... If I had got up a convention to debate the question of
my ability to paint '_Marche au Chevaux_' [The Horse Fair], for which
England paid me forty thousand francs, the decision would have been
against me. I felt the power within me to paint; I cultivated it, and
have produced works that have won the favorable verdicts of the great
judges. I have no patience with women who ask _permission to think_!"
For years she lived in Rue d'Assas, a retired street half made up of
gardens. Here she had one of the most beautiful studios of Paris, the
room lighted from the ceiling, the walls covered with paintings, with
here and there old armor, tapestry, hats, cloaks, sandals, and skins
of tigers, leopards, foxes, and oxen on the floor. One Friday, the day
on which she received guests, one of her friends, coming earlier
than usual, found her fast asleep on her favorite skin, that of a
magnificent ox, with stuffed head and spreading horns. She had come in
tired from the School of Design, and had thrown herself down to rest.
Usually after greeting her friends she would say, "Allow me to resume
my brush; we can talk just as well together." For those who have any
great work to do in this worlds there is little time for visiting;
interruptions cannot be permitted. No wonder Carlyle groaned when some
person had taken two hours of his time. He could better have spared
money to the visitor.
For several years Rosa Bonheur has lived near Fontainebleau, in the
Chateau By. Henry Bacon says: "The chateau dates from the time of
Louis XV., and the garden is still laid out in the style of Le Notre.
Since it has been in the present proprietor's possession, a quaint,
picturesque brick building, containing the carriage house and
coachman's lodge on the first floor, and the studio on the second,
has been added; the roof of the main building has been raised, and the
chapel changed into an orangery: beside the main carriage-entrance,
which is closed by iron gates and wooden blinds, is a postern gate,
with a small grated opening, like those found in convents. The blinds
to the gate and the slide to the grating are generally closed, and
the only communication with the outside world is by the bell-wire,
terminating in a ring beside the gate. Ring, and the jingle of the
bell is at once echoed by the barking of numerous dogs,--the hounds
and bassets in chorus, the grand Saint Bernard in slow measure, like
the bass-drum in an orchestra. After the first excitement among the
dogs has begun to abate, a remarkably small house-pet that has been
somewhere in the interior arrives upon the scene, and with his sharp,
shrill voice again starts and leads the canine chorus. By this time
the eagle in his cage has awakened, and the parrot, whose cage is
built into the corner of the studio looking upon the street, adds to
the racket.
"Behind the house is a large park divided from the forest by a high
wall; a lawn and flower-beds are laid out near the buildings; and on
the lawn, in pleasant weather, graze a magnificent bull and cow,
which are kept as models. In a wire enclosure are two chamois from the
Pyrenees, and further removed from the house, in the wooded part of
the park, are enclosures for sheep and deer, each of which knows its
mistress. Even the stag, bearing its six-branched antlers, receives
her caresses like a pet dog. At the end of one of the linden avenues
is a splendid bronze, by Isadore Bonheur, of a Gaul attacking a lion.
"The studio is very large, with a huge chimney at one end, the
supports of which are life-size dogs, modeled by Isadore Bonheur.
Portraits of the father and mother in oval frames hang at each
side, and a pair of gigantic horns ornaments the centre. The room
is decorated with stuffed heads of animals of various kinds,--boars,
bears, wolves, and oxen; and birds perch in every convenient place."
When Prussia conquered France, and swept through this town, orders
were given that Rosa Bonheur's home and paintings be carefully
preserved. Even her servants went unmolested. The peasants idolized
the great woman who lived in the chateau, and were eager to serve her.
She always talked to them pleasantly. Rosa Bonheur died at her home at
11 P.M., Thursday, May 25, 1899.

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