I had never heard of Rosa Bonheur until listening to the wonderful Sandi Toksvig on Vox Tox, chatting to the nation on YouTube sharing her thoughts of the day. She mentioned Rosa Bonheur the defiant Victorian animal painter, and that sparked a “chain of curiosity”. So here’s why Rosa Bonheur was a fabulous queer icon.
She was a expelled from school for her tomboy manners
Born in 1822 in Bordeaux, Rosa Bonheur was routinely expelled from schools for her un-lady-like behaviour. Thankfully, her father was a painter, and he encouraged her to develop skills in art.
She was a hugely successful female woman artist in her own lifetime
Rosa became the leading animal painter of her time, with international fame. Her art fetched high prices, and she was the first woman to receive the ‘Legion of Honour’ – the highest French order of merit. There was even a ‘Rosa’ doll – a highly collectible porcelain doll was made in her likeness, helping to inspire generations of Victorian girls.
She defied gender norms in the art world
She was able to be financially independent from selling her art. Her paintings were of ‘masculine’ subjects – farms and large animals. At a time when other female artists were painting pretty women and domestic environments she was studying animal carcasses in slaughterhouses, and sketching in markets or out in the woods. She had a menagerie including dogs, cows, horses and a lion.
She said: “As far as males go, I only like the bulls I paint.” She smoked, cut her hair short, rode astride horses, and wore men’s trousers – which required a special permit from the police in nineteenth-century Paris. She chose to live openly in two relationships with women. Rosa and Nathalie Micas lived closely together for many years, until Nathalie’s death in 1889. Rosa then met American painter Anna Klumpke and they lived together for the rest of their lives. All three women were buried together in the same cemetery plot.