The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography

Rosa Bonheur

Rosa Bonheur

A carte-de-visite portrait of the artist Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899).

A painter noted for her realistic animal portraits, such as Horse Fair (1853), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her earliest training was received from her father, a minor landscape painter, who encouraged her interest in art and animals. He allowed her to keep a menagerie in their home, including a sheep that is reported to have lived on the balcony of their apartment in Paris. In 1865 she became the first female artist (and only the twelfth woman) to receive the Cross of the Légion d’Honneur.

These days her fame as an artist is somewhat overshadowed by her notoriety as a cross-dresser. Her short hair, her trousers, and cigarette smoking are now legendary. Although many of her contemporaries found the elements of masculine dress that she adopted troubling - or at least, endless fascinating - it is worth noting that her intention was not to look like a man, and even less to pass for one. She sought, rather, to devise an alternative model of being a woman, though of course, these departures from the expectations of polite society also signalled her sexual unorthodoxy. Her short hair was bobbed, and not styled like a man’s (she had originally cut it short as a sign of bereavement after her mother’s death). No matter what clothing she donned, she was extraordinarily proud of her dainty feet, and liked to wear the most stylish bootees to call attention to them. The artist’s smocks that she adopted were invariably delicately embroidered, and were therefore quite different from an ordinary worker’s garment. Her love of cigarettes, which she smoked freely at home, had to be curtailed in public. Although at her home she greeted President Carnot, Queen Isabella of Spain, and Queen Victoria’s daughter clad in trousers – she knew that they expected to see her this way – she presented a ‘proper’ female appearance in other circumstances, and always donned a formal dress for social occasions away from home. She did, however, receive special permission to leave off the prescribed décolltage for lunch with the Imperial couple.

Photographed by Disdéri of Paris.


Code: 124129
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© Paul Frecker 2019