Women’s educational prospects in the art industry were limited two centuries ago. But, on the other hand, Rosa Bonheur seemed to have painting in her blood.
The French artist, born into a family of artists, began sketching with pencil and paper before she could speak. Bonheur became one of the most prominent female artists of the 19th century because of her father’s support and education as a landscape and portrait painter.
Her amazingly realistic paintings of horses, lions, and other animals earned her great recognition during her lifetime. On Bonheur’s 200th birthday, Google devoted its Doodle to her in appreciation of her contribution to the art world and a career that inspired generations of female artists to follow.
Bonheur, born on March 16, 1822, in Bordeaux, France, struggled at school. She struggled with reading and writing at first and only learned to read and write with the aid of her mother, who had her sketch an animal next to each letter of the alphabet. She was regularly misbehaving and disobedient, which resulted in her being expelled from school.
Her father began teaching her drawing and painting after she failed an apprenticeship as a seamstress when she was 12 years old. Bonheur began studying domesticated animals in fields and pastures surrounding Paris and imitating paintings at the Louvre museum after her mother instilled a passion for animals in her at an early age.
Plowing in the Nivernais, an oil on canvas featuring oxen plowing the ground presently on exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, was her first significant hit in 1849. However, the Horse Fair, an epic painting eight feet high and 16 feet broad painted in 1855, is her most famous piece of art.
Empress Eugenie conferred the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor on Bonheur ten years later, the first time the medal was given to a female artist.
Bonheur died in 1899 at the age of 77 and was interred at Père Lachaise Cemetery beside her longstanding friend Nathalie Micas.