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September 2, 2023

Rosa Bonheur, the French Artist Who Permitted to Wear Pants During the Third Republic

Rosa Bonheur (March 16, 1822 – May 25, 1899) was a French artist known best as a painter of animals (animalière). She also made sculptures in a realist style. Her paintings include Ploughing in the Nivernais, first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1848, and now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and The Horse Fair (in French: Le marché aux chevaux), which was exhibited at the Salon of 1853 (finished in 1855) and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Bonheur was widely considered to be the most famous female painter of the nineteenth century.

Rosa Bonheur in her atelier (1893) by Georges Achille-Fould.

Women were often only reluctantly educated as artists in Bonheur’s day, and by becoming such a successful artist she helped to open doors to the women artists who followed her. Bonheur was known for wearing men’s clothing; she attributed her choice of trousers to their practicality for working with animals.

She lived with her first partner, Nathalie Micas, for over 40 years until Micas’ death, and later began a relationship with the American painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke. At a time when lesbianism was regarded as animalistic and deranged by most French officials, Bonheur’s outspokenness about her personal life was groundbreaking.

In a world where gender expression was policed, Bonheur broke boundaries by deciding to wear trousers, shirts and ties, although not in her painted portraits or posed photographs. She did not do this because she wanted to be a man, though she occasionally referred to herself as a grandson or brother when talking about her family; rather, she identified with the power and freedom reserved for men. It also broadcast her sexuality at a time where the lesbian stereotype consisted of women who cut their hair short, wore trousers, and chain-smoked. Rosa Bonheur did all three. Bonheur never explicitly said she was a lesbian, but her lifestyle and the way she talked about her female partners suggest this.

Until 2013 women in France were technically forbidden from wearing trousers by the “Decree concerning the cross-dressing of women” which was implemented on November 17, 1800. By at least World War II this was largely ignored, but in Bonheur’s time was still an issue. In 1852, Bonheur had to ask permission from the police to wear trousers, as this was her preferred attire to go to the sheep and cattle markets to study the animals she painted.

Bonheur, while taking pleasure in activities usually reserved for men (such as hunting and smoking), viewed her womanhood as something far superior to anything a man could offer or experience. She viewed men as stupid and mentioned that the only males she had time or attention for were the bulls she painted.

Having chosen to never become an adjunct or appendage to a man in terms of painting, she decided she would be her own boss and that she would lean on herself and her female partners instead. She had her partners focus on the home life while she took on the role of breadwinner by concentrating on her painting. Bonheur’s legacy paved the way for other lesbian artists who didn’t favor the life society had laid out for them.

Bonheur died on May 25, 1899, at the age of 77, at Thomery (By), France. She was buried together with Nathalie Micas (1824 – June 24, 1889), her lifelong companion, at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. Klumpke was Bonheur’s sole heir after her death, and later joined Micas and Bonheur in the same cemetery upon her death. Bonheur, Micas, and Klumpke’s collective tombstone reads, “Friendship is divine affection.” Many of her paintings, which had not previously been shown publicly, were sold at auction in Paris in 1900.

Rosa Bonheur in her studio.

Rosa Bonheur by André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, ca. 1861–64..

Portrait of Rosa Bonheur, ca. 1895–99.

Anna Klumpke (left) and Rosa Bonheur (right).

Rosa Bonheur painting outdoors en plein air.


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