In honor of Women's History Month, I recently spoke with Rebecca Rabinow, associate curator in the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art, about The Horse Fair, a monumental painting by Rosa Bonheur (French, 1822–1899). Bonheur was among the most successful female artists of the nineteenth century.
Jennette Mullaney: The Horse Fair became one of the most celebrated works of the nineteenth century. What made it such a success?
Rebecca Rabinow: When this painting was first exhibited in the Salon of 1853, the public was awed by its dynamism and energy. One art critic wrote that he had to suppress the urge to jump out of the way of the running horses. As you can see, the horses are almost life-size and beautifully painted. It may be difficult to imagine now, but at that time, animals—horses, cattle, sheep—were popular subject matter, and Bonheur was recognized as one of the best animal painters of her generation. It always surprises me when I read contemporary reviews of The Horse Fair because most of them mention the artist's gender: "It would be a remarkable painting if it had been by a man, but it is extraordinary because it is by a woman"—that kind of remark. For better or worse, the gender of the artist added to the painting's cachet.
Bonheur retouched the canvas in 1855—which is why she added the number "5" after the date on the lower right—and sold it to a British art dealer who exhibited it throughout England. Queen Victoria even requested that it be brought to Buckingham Palace for a private viewing. Images were not as widely available as they are today, so it is noteworthy that the etchings made after the painting were widely dispersed in Europe and America. The Horse Fair has been one of our most popular paintings ever since Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased it for the Met in 1887.
Jennette Mullaney: Bonheur is usually characterized as a Realist painter, yet The Horse Fair is an idealized depiction. Does this work belong to the Realist movement?
Rebecca Rabinow: I don't think it is necessary to shoehorn the painting into any particular "ism." The term "Realism" refers to a movement popular in the mid-nineteenth century when—very simply put—artists painted the working-class people or landscapes they observed. You never find a goddess rising from the sea [see Alexandre Cabanel's The Birth of Venus, for example] or angels hovering in clouds in a Realist painting. Bonheur's subject matter in The Horse Fair is not invented. We know that she made many trips to the horse market that was held on the tree-lined boulevard near the asylum of Salpêtrière in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris. This was an age before cars; horse-drawn carriages were a principle means of transportation. Prospective buyers would sit on the grassy bank and watch the horses trot in circles.
It's worth remembering that Bonheur worked on this painting for two years, during which time the composition evolved. Bonheur cited the Parthenon frieze as an influence, and sure enough, the rearing horse in her painting is directly borrowed from those famous Greek marbles. From the beginning, critics and art historians have seen references in The Horse Fair to the work of Delacroix, Géricault, and Rubens. Art historians find these comparisons enriching, but you don't need to know the work of these artists to appreciate The Horse Fair on its own terms.
Jennette Mullaney: In preparatory research for The Horse Fair, Bonheur visited horse markets and slaughterhouses, wearing pants so as not to attract attention to her gender. Were there other concerns that were particular to being an artist and a woman in the nineteenth century?
Rebecca Rabinow: Much has been written on the subject of nineteenth-century women artists by Linda Nochlin and other art historians. For most of the century, it was acceptable for women to paint as a hobby, whereas a social stigma was attached to women who painted professionally. It was difficult for a young woman to receive proper training. Men learned to draw and paint by studying nude models. However, it was felt that women students shouldn't be exposed to naked flesh. France's official art school, the École des Beaux-Arts, only began admitting female students in the 1890s. Luckily for Bonheur, her father was an artist; he instructed her, and her family supported her career choice. In 1865 she was the first woman to be awarded the French Legion of Honor.
As you say, for a year and a half Bonheur did dress as a man so as not to call attention to herself while making studies for The Horse Fair. In truth she often dressed in male clothes, which she obviously found practical. A reporter who paid an unannounced visit to her country estate in Fontainebleau was surprised to discover that the "masculine figure" shearing sheep and garbed in an enormous straw hat, gray velvet breeches, and hobnail boots was none other than Mademoiselle Bonheur herself.
Jennette Mullaney is associate email marketing manager in the Department of Digital Media.