Rosa Bonheur remains today the most famous woman artist of the nineteenth century. A precocious talent from a young age, Bonheur and her siblings were trained by her father Raymond in the style of a Renaissance workshop. Beyond artistic instruction, Bonheur was also deeply influenced by her father’s beliefs as a Saint-Simonian and its socialist, utopic vision of a new world order where women would have an important role in reshaping society in peace and equality. As Bonheur remembered of her father "to his doctrines I owe my great and glorious ambition for the sex to which I proudly belong and whose independence I shall defend until my dying day" (Anna Klumpke, Rosa Bonheur, sa vie, son oeuvre
, Paris, 1908, p. 311, as quoted in Brian C. Dwyer, "Rosa Bonheur and Her Companion-Artist: What Made Anne Klumpke Special?" Rosa Bonheur, All Nature’s Children
, exh. cat., 1998, p. 65). At the same time while her father was away in a pseodomonastic fellowship at Ménilmontant, a commune in northeastern Paris, Bonheur’s mother Sophie was left to take care of the children and support them which enforced Rosa’s view of women’s independence (Dwyer, p. 64-5). Indeed, throughout her early career, from copying the masters in the Louvre at the age of fourteen, to studying animals from life in the slaughterhouses of Paris, Bonheur refused to be restricted by contemporary gender codes, and focused on her personal path through the cultural institutions of the era.
Bonheur first exhibited at the Salon
in 1841, at only nineteen. Le labourage
followed at the Salon
of 1845, where she earned a third place medal. This achievement marked her as a success and, as she remembered, brought her incredible joy and further commissions (Le labourage
was aptly selected as the illustration for chapter XII, "Un premier succès," of her 1908 biography by Klumpke, see p. 175). With characteristically meticulous craftsmanship and photographic realism, Bonheur’s Le labourage
records the steady pull of the plow by two horses. A child rides atop a grey’s back and shares a smile with his hardworking father. The brilliant clarity and use of light in painting the furrowed fields and the darkening clouds recalls Bonheur’s study of the Dutch masters and shows the results of a day’s hard labor. The human figures are diminutive in comparison to the wide open landscape and the powerful horses at the center of the composition, their gleaming coats and straining muscles sensitively observed, illustrate why Bonheur was one of the most celebrated and successful animaliers
of the nineteenth century. Further, this scene of agricultural labor was part of a contemporary trend celebrating rural traditions and honoring the peasant, themes which Bonheur would continue to explore in her landmark Labourage nivernais
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris, fig. 1), the result of a French government commission shown at the Salon
of 1849. Labourage nivernais
was said to be inspired by the opening scenes of George Sand’s (née Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dudevant)
novel La Mare au Diable
(1846), which featured oxen ploughing a landscape. Bonheur expressed deep admiration for Sand who, like the artist's father, shared utopian beliefs and defied social norms by smoking cigarettes and dressing as a man, a practice the artist would adopt as she became an established presence at the Salon
and experienced international fame.
From the beginning of her career, masterful compositions like Le Labourage, followed by Labourage nivernais and other masterpieces like The Horse Fair (1852-55, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), helped define the artist’s sense of self and a new dimension of the woman artist, one which had a lasting impact on generations to follow.