Posted: 29th April 2021
This Lesbian Visibility Week we’re admiring the work of the iconic artist Rosa Bonheur.
Bonheur was a defiant 19th century French artist who broke boundaries to become one of the most acclaimed women artists of the day. She cut her hair short, wore masculine clothing, rode astride horses, made her own living and was proud woman and lesbian.
Bonheur became known for her impressive studies of animals. The Lion at Home by Bonheur is a favourite in the Ferens collection, and at over 2m wide this large-scale work takes centre-stage in Gallery 5.
Bonheur was successful from a young age, and exhibited at the Paris Salon for the first time at the age of 19. She took great inspiration from animals, especially horses, and worked directly from observation, keeping a menagerie of animals in her home, including at one point a lion, lioness, wild sheep and a gazelle! Bonheur also visited slaughterhouses and dissected animals to gain anatomical knowledge which informed her large, realistic paintings.
In 1855, Bonheur completed her most famous painting The Horse Fair which depicts the Parisian horse market. This monumental painting led to international fame for Bonheur and was admired for its energy and expressive yet realist brushwork.
Bonheur’s skilful paintings of animals followed the popular style of realism of the day, and appealed to a range of audiences including the prestigious Paris Salon, the general public, and even royalty – with Queen Victoria herself personally admiring The Horse Fair. Although this was a popular style of the day, it was very much ground-breaking for a woman artist to choose such subject matter and various critics admired the “masculine” style of her works.
Notably, in 1865, Bonheur also became the first woman to receive the Legion of Honour, the highest French order of merit. It is said that this honour was presented to Bonheur by Empress Eugénie when the Emperor, Napoleon III, left Paris for a summer excursion. The Emperor himself feared judgement for presenting this honour to a woman, despite advice to award this decoration to Bonheur. Empress Eugénie however had no such fear, and whilst Napoleon III was out of the city she unexpectedly visited Bonheur’s studio, greeting the artist by throwing her arms around her neck and kissing her. After a short visit, the Empress left and only then did Bonheur realise that as the Empress had kissed her she had pinned the cross of the Legion of Honour to her blouse.
But it isn’t just Bonheur’s artistic talent that we admire today; it’s also her progressive attitude towards gender and her personal strength of character.
Bonheur was a pioneering feminist and was openly a lesbian, living with her partner Nathalie Micas for over 40 years. Bonheur’s openness about her sexuality was an incredible act of bravery as at the time lesbian relationships were viewed as immoral.
Bonheur had a great sense of spirit and bravery, and defied gender norms of the time. In 1852, for example, Bonheur was one of a handful of women who obtained a special police permit to wear men’s clothing – referring to women’s clothing as a ‘constant bother’. Obtaining this permit allowed Bonheur to disguise herself as a man in order to visit slaughterhouses and livestock markets. Masculine dress was also much more practical for painting and working outdoors and allowed her to avoid unwanted attention while she sat sketching in Paris. It has also been suggested that Bonheur may have included several discreet portraits of herself in masculine clothing within some of her paintings in celebration of her non-conformity.
It is thought the reasoning behind the decree requiring women to obtain a permit to wear men’s clothing might have been to stop gatherings of feminists or queer women, who may have been inclined, or perceived to be inclined, to dress in a masculine fashion. Therefore, it is certainly significant that we consider how such discriminatory regulations would have disproportionately affected LGBTQ+ women and non-binary people of the time.
Bonheur can also be considered a feminist, before the term was widely used, and her unapologetically feminist views influenced both her personal life and artistic success. For example, Bonheur painted very much on her own terms, choosing to capture the subjects she wished, in the style of her choosing. She also demanded that the achievements of women artists were equally assessed to those of men. This attitude and defiance helped pave the way for women artists into the 20th century.
Written by Exhibitions Assistant, Elizabeth Lindley
Pride in Our City
This blog was written in celebration of Lesbian Visibility Week 2021 and feeds in to the wider research being undertaken as part of Hull Museums’ ongoing Pride in Our City project. The project aims to increase LGBTQ+ representation and inclusion throughout all of Hull Museums and Ferens Art Gallery’s delivery, from our research and interpretation to our events and programming.
As part of this work we’re continuing to explore the LGBTQ+ narratives within our collections, if you would like to share any contributions with us, please do get in touch at – PrideInOurCity@gmail.com
To find out more about the Pride in Our City Project and how to get involved, please visit the project page here – http://humbermuseums.com/projects/pride-city-project-2/
Lesbian Visibility Week at Hull Museums
If you enjoyed this blog, then why not check out our Museum Crush article which explores a range of objects from our collections, highlighting lesbian narratives and icons to mark Lesbian Visibility Week 2021.
You can read the Museum Crush blog online here – https://museumcrush.org/exploring-lesbian-visibility-week-through-the-collections-at-hull-museums/
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