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Renowned for her perceptive and meticulously detailed depictions of animals, French artist Rosa Bonheur became one of the most admired painters in Europe in the mid-19th century. Her unconventional attire was also a subject of interest; in the 1850s she was one of only a dozen women in France to receive a legal permit to wear men’s clothing.[1] Bonheur’s trousers allowed her to enter spheres generally forbidden to women, enabling her to study animal musculature at the Parisian horse fair and slaughterhouses, to sketch outdoors comfortably, and to ride horses astride.[2] Bonheur became a professional artist and gained financial independence at a time when most women were able to pursue art only as a recreation, if at all.

Bonheur’s 1887 painting Relay Hunting was recently installed in the Museum’s Realism gallery (Gallery 206), which displays work representative of a mid-19th-century shift away from historical, mythological, and religious paintings toward the truthful depiction of everyday, contemporary subject matter that appealed to Europe’s expanding middle classes. Bonheur’s commercial success reflects these trends as well as a growing interest in the scientific study of animal anatomy and natural history.

In Relay Hunting, Bonheur depicted three saddled horses standing on a dirt road that leads into a forest of leafless trees. The horses are “relayed,” or set aside to be exchanged for horses exhausted by the hunt. Bonheur carefully depicted the horses’ strongly defined musculature and gleaming coats in brown, gray, and white. In contrast, the rider, who sits on the ground behind them, is sketched in almost as an afterthought. Bonheur’s paintings often foreground animals over humans, reflecting her deep connection with her own animal companions, including the horses, deer, boar, sheep, goats, dogs, monkeys, and lions that she kept at her château at By, near Fontainebleau.[3]

Early in her career Bonheur received critical acclaim at the Paris Salon with such monumental paintings as Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849 and The Horse Fair, 1852-55. Queen Victoria requested a private viewing of The Horse Fair while it was on tour in England, and Empress Eugenie of France awarded Bonheur the Legion of Honour in 1865, reflecting the Empress’s conviction that “genius has no sex.”[4] By the 1880s, when she painted Relay Hunting, Bonheur spent much of her time working on commissions at her château, surrounded by her animals, her companion and childhood friend Natalie Micas, and Micas’s mother. Bonheur preferred this life of seclusion, supposedly telling French writer Jules Claretie, “I need the society of no one, I care nothing for the fashionable… A portrait painter has need of these things, but not I, who find all that is wanted in my dogs, my horses, my hinds, and my stags of the forest.”[5]

Rosa Bonheur in her garden.
Relay Hunting

Rosa Bonheur, French, 1822–1899; Relay Hunting, 1887; oil on canvas; 18 x 26 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Justina G. Catlin in memory of her husband, Daniel Catlin 7:1917

Authored by Molly Moog, research assistant, modern and contemporary art.

  • [1] Gretchen van Slyke, “The Sexual and Textual Politics of Dress: Rosa Bonheur and Her Cross-Dressing Permits,” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 26, no. 3/4 (spring/summer 1998), 327. [2] without the use of a side-saddle. [3] Anne Henderson, Rosa Bonheur: Selected Works from US Collections (Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 1989), [6].; Dore Ashton, Rosa Bonheur: A Life and a Legend (New York: Viking Press, 1981), 171. [4] Anna Klumpke, Rosa Bonheur: The Artist’s (Auto)Biography, trans. Gretchen van Slyke (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 172-73. Bonheur was the first woman to receive this award from the French government. [5] Theodore Stanton, Reminiscences of Rosa Bonheur (London: Andrew Melrose, 1910), 338. A hind is a mature female deer.

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