Rosa Bonheur: the painter who gave her name to a peony
Until recently, I thought Rosa Bonheur was a peony. She is, but only because she was famous first. Outside the flower bed, she was a famous French artist. She is still a role model for budding female artists. Her sexuality has been interpreted to place her within the LGBTQ canon. To my fascination, she gives my pet peeve, garden wildlife, an unusual twist.
She finally returns to the front of the stage. An exhibition of his work is in progress at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bordeaux until September 18. She then moves to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris from October 18 to January 15, 2023. In 2020, she was the subject of a lively and well-informed biography by Catherine Hewitt, Art is a tyrant. This year, she is the subject of an excellent historical novel, of which I translate the title from French: “I have the energy of a lioness in the body of a bird”, words of Rosa Bonheur herself .
Its author is Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin, award-winning historian of the landscape gardener André Le Nôtre. She studied masses of letters and sources for the life of Bonheur, a widely dispersed trail of paper and canvas. His highly readable novel is grounded in facts but written with style, wit and originality. It deserves to be translated.
Bouchenot-Déchin is responsible for restoring the garden of the Château Bonheur, acquired by the artist near Fontainebleau. So I went there to discuss his replanting plans. President Macron had preceded me, during a visit at the end of 2019. Then, the castle had just been bought by Katherine Brault, a follower of Bonheur, who sympathetically improved it for visitors. Bonheur’s studio is intact, as are its bedrooms and bathroom. For €350 you can enjoy a night in a historic room with a view of the town of Thomery and the woods beyond. The garden is intended to be part of the experience.
Bonheur was born in Bordeaux in March 1822. Her family was of Jewish origin, her mother a music teacher and her painter father who encouraged Bonheur, her brothers and her sister to also be artistic. She was a boring schoolgirl and was constantly left out. By the age of 14, she was copying, drawing and studying master painters. She also sculpted. At 23, she exhibited a painting at the Paris Salon and remarkably won the third prize.
In 1848, she exhibited six paintings and two bronze sculptures. Their subjects are the animals: a critic is surprised that she did not “stay around the sheepfold as women would naturally be inclined to do” but “went to study her cattle and her Cantal bulls in the air of the mountains”. Indeed she had and her painting of them won a gold medal. She also studied dead animals in a slaughterhouse in the current 8th arrondissement of Paris.
Animals mingle with his style of dress, his castle and his garden. As she worked closely with them in the slaughterhouse and outside, she asked for a derogation from the French law of 1800 prohibiting female cross-dressing: part of it, which was not formally repealed until in 2013, ordered that any woman wearing men’s clothing be escorted to the police headquarters. Bonheur applied for an exemption because of her job and was often seen wearing pants afterwards. She also smokes cigars and shared a house for 40 years with a young friend, Nathalie Micas: she never married.
No wonder she was assumed to be a lesbian, although Bouchenot-Déchin, Brault and her archivist know the sources in detail and consider that she did not have a lesbian relationship until much later in life, with a young American, Anna Klumpke, also an artist, who settled in the castle until the death of Bonheur. On the master bathroom wall, I noticed the many pictures of topless women.
Bonheur was an excellent painter of horses. In 1855, her large painting “The Horse Fair” was sold at a golden price, which enabled her to buy the Château de Thomery in her own name, a most unusual feat for a Frenchwoman at that time. It is now at the Met in New York, but the National Gallery in London has a smaller version.
Like Stubbs, Bonheur understood horse anatomy from first-hand study. She is the equine heiress of Géricault, who died aged two, and the predecessor of Lionel Edwards, whose eye for horses in motion remains unrivaled.
In the castle garden, Bouchenot-Déchin showed me around the preliminary clearing and planting of everything from the beautiful Pierre de Ronsard pink rose, unfamiliar in Britain, to viburnums, prunus, rhododendron Cunningham’s White and romantic roses. Sir Walter Scott, who connect with Happiness’ own life. I told him about Paeonia Rosa Bonheur, but it is not for sale in Great Britain. Maybe one of you can provide a plant.
Two elements from Bonheur’s era are particularly impressive, the garden wall and a gazebo on a raised podium. I learned that the wall was important in keeping wildlife out of the garden and that the gazebo was where Bonheur would paint it. She had more than a few rabbits and a few badgers. His garden was nicknamed his “Noah’s Ark”.
Bouchenot-Déchin takes 10 lines to list her prisoners, from horses, stags and ferrets to monkeys and even lions, but she does not invent. Within reach of her pencil, she notes, Bonheur kept her boarding animals, some of which were gifts from distinguished visitors. Dogs and a monkey attended his tea parties. Hewitt begins a chapter: “It was not the first time that Mrs. Micas had peeled the covers off her bed to find that the otter had arrived first.
Saving the garden, for Bonheur, meant sharing it with four-legged friends. She insisted they had a soul, but she also liked to go shooting. By the 1870s his style of painting had fallen out of favor in France, where Impressionism and other new movements left him behind. She had been entered into the Legion of Honor at a high rank, a remarkable feat for a woman, but Bouchenot-Déchin suspects that there had been an even more passionate distinction.
During a visit to Britain in 1855, Bonheur was courted by the great British animal painter Edwin Landseer. The President of the Royal Academy gave him a dinner party at which, according to his wife, Landseer proposed that the men present, all unmarried, send a marriage deputation to Miss Bonheur and that he himself would gladly become Sir Edwin Bonheur.
In her novel, Bouchenot-Déchin deftly fills the gaps in the months of Happiness in the Scottish Highlands and unfurls a bouquet sent to her by the older artist, of white heather and moss roses. The note read, “To the Lady of the Lake from the King of the Isles,” his handsome Prince Edwin. Their romance blossoms, like never before, from Glencoe to the home of Walter Scott: hence these roses in the restored garden. I’m not going to spoiler because it’s even better in French. It’s a compelling inference, made for the first time, a Landseer who could have gone to France and become Monarch of the Den.
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FT Weekend Festival, London
Save the date for Saturday September 3 to see and listen to FTWeekend live. Highlights will include the Garden Chronicler Fox from Robin Lanea panel on second homes hosted by the publisher House & Home Nathan Brookerand novelist Susie Boyt in discussion with the columnist Enuma Okoro on how to create a sense of belonging. Book your pass at ft.com/ftwf