On this day in 1853, the artist Rosa Bonheur’s greatest
masterpiece, The Horse Fair, was
first exhibited to the public at the Paris Salon. Now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the painting symbolizes the peak of the lesbian artist’s career.
After making its debut, The Horse Fair was shown across Europe and America and was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1887 (x).
Rosa Bonheur was born on March 16, 1822 in Bordeaux, France
to family of socialist artists; her father was a notable portrait painter
and, although she died when Rosa was just eleven-years-old, her mother was
a piano teacher. Growing up in a Christian-socialist church called Saint-Simonianism,
both Rosa and her younger siblings were raised under a liberal ideology that
questioned women’s place in society and put less importance on marriage in the lives of women. This influence as well as the
general Bohemian quality of Parisian society perhaps gave Rosa the foundation
she needed to later on to live freely as her artsy lesbian self.
Self Portrait by Rosa Bonheur, painted in 1857 (x).
She was sent to school in Paris at a young age and began
training to be a seamstress, but after Rosa’s teachers kept suspending her and
claiming that she was too much of a disruptive force in the classroom, her
father eventually pulled her out of school and began training her to be a painter. Rosa was
commissioned by the French government for her first professional piece in 1849;
the result was Ploughing in the Nivernais.
Her largest and most popular piece, The
Horse Fair, was completed in 1855, although the public was given a sneak preview
of the work at the Paris Salon of 1853. The painting is eight feet high by
sixteen feet wide and shows Paris’s famous horse market with the unmistakable Pitié-Salpêtrière
Hospital in the background. The Horse
Fair was the piece that put Rosa’s name on the map and allowed her to
travel across Europe to different exhibitions – one such exhibition even
garnered the audience of Queen Victoria of England.
Aside from her artistic legacy, Rosa also paved the way for
gender-nonconforming women to live freely in France when she requested and was
granted a permit from the Paris police that allowed her to wear pants in
public, which was technically illegal at the time. For this reason, she is often
dubbed one of the revolutionary “New Women” of the 19th century who began
the work of making pants an acceptable fashion choice for women. Rosa also
directly defied the mores of her time by being in what would now be
considered a polyamorous relationship with two women, Nathalie Micas and Anna
Klumpke. When she died on May 22, 1899 at the age of 77, Rosa was buried along
with Nathalie at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris; Anna joined them as well when she passed away in 1942.