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Wild Women of the West: Rosa Bonheur

A famed animal painter and sculptor.

April 23, 2019

Water sloshed out of buckets that were being passed quickly between the people standing in front of a house fire in the tiny town of North Platte, Nebraska.  The water was frantically tossed onto the flames rising from Buffalo Bill Cody’s home. It was the winter of 1891. With the help of friends and neighbors, the town’s small fire department managed to save most of the contents from the home, but was unable to hold the inferno off completely.  Cody was on a Wild West Show tour through Europe and was notified of the fire via a telegram. His response back put his wife at ease. “Save Rosa Bonheur’s painting,” he wrote. “And the house may go to blazes.”

Among Buffalo Bill’s prized possessions was a portrait of him done by the famed animal painter and sculptor Rosa Bonheur.  The portrait of Cody on his favorite horse, Tucker, was done in 1889. It showed a strong, proud Buffalo Bill taking his majestic ride through a stand of brush.  Cody kept the portrait in his parlor. The brilliant painting was shown on the Wild West Show’s playbills, postcards, and posters. The public so admired the work that art collectors across the United States sought out Rosa to paint more scenes of the American West.

Rose Bonheur’s artistic aptitude was evident at the age of four.  Born on March 16, 1822, in Bordeaux, France, she was encouraged by her equally talented parents to draw.  Rosa’s father, Raymond, was a painter and teacher. He nurtured his daughter’s abilities, helping her to learn the craft by copying paintings by the masters da Vinci and Michelangelo.

In 1841, at the age of nineteen, Rosa had her first exhibition.  Much of her work was paintings and sculptures of animals. Her painting “Rabbits Nibbling Carrots” brought high praise and recognition to the teenager and prompted instructors at the Paris Omnibus Company (a prestigious art school) to extend Rosa and invitation to study with them.

The charming 5-foot-2-inch maid preferred to do her paintings dressed in pants.  Trousers seemed a more practical garment than a skirt to wear when she was painting livestock.  The French police granted her permission to wear men’s clothing while she worked. The result of her work in Paris was a series of masterpieces that included paintings of lions, sheep, and horses.

Rosa’s work was honored with gold medals, and she was quickly becoming the most famous woman artist of the time.  In 1851 she consented to become the director of the Paris Free School of Design for Young Girls.

It was there that she created her most recognized work up to that time – a painting called “The Horse Fair.”

Thirty-eight years passed between the creation of “The Horse Fair” and painting the portrait that would bring her worldwide renown.  When Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show arrived in France in 1889, Rosa, as well as thousands of other Paris citizens, made her way to the exhibition hall to witness the spectacle.  Cody was accompanied by numerous cowboys, cowgirls, and Indians, twenty buffalo, twenty-five mustangs, eight dogs, and 186 horses. Rosa was taken aback by the enormity of Buffalo Bill’s company.  The colorful wardrobe of the Indians, the rugged look of the cowboys, and the regal animals inspired her. For seven months she haunted the fairground where the show’s cast and crew had set up camp.

In an attempt to capture the beauty, freedom, and independence of America’s West, she painted and sketched the sights around her daily.  She captured on canvas Indian Chief Red Shirt and the warrior Rocky Bear; Cody’s buffalo, Barney; and the thirty-eight-acre campground where the Wild West show participants lived.

“I was able to examine their tents as at my ease,” she wrote in her journal.  “I was present at family scenes and I conversed as best I could with warriors and their wives and children.  I made studies of the bison, horses, and arms. I have a veritable passion, you know, for this unfortunate race and I deplore that it is disappearing before the While usurpers.”

In the fall of 1889, Rosa invited Buffalo Bill to her chateau to pose for a portrait.  Cody considered the work “a heroic, high-culture tribute.”

For the next ten years of her life, Rosa’s experience with the Wild West Show would influence her painting.  Although she never traveled to the United States, she managed to capture the realist of the western setting as if she’d been a part of it.

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