(b. 1822, Bordeaux, d. 1899, Thomery)


French painter and sculptor, best known for her paintings of animals. She received her training from her father, Raymond Bonheur (1796-1849), an artist and ardent Saint-Simonian who encouraged her artistic career and independence. Precocious and talented, she began making copies in the Louvre at the age of 14 and first exhibited at the Salon in 1841. Her sympathetic portrayal of animals was influenced by prevailing trends in natural history and her deep affinity for animals, especially horses.

Bonheur's art, as part of the Realist current that emerged in the 1840s, was grounded in direct observation of nature and meticulous draughtsmanship. She kept a small menagerie, frequented slaughterhouses and dissected animals to gain anatomical knowledge. Although painting was her primary medium, she also sculpted, or modelled, studies of animals, several of which were exhibited at the Salons, including a bronze Study for a Bull (1843) and Sheep (bronze; San Francisco, de Young Memorial Museum.). In 1845 she attracted favourable notice at the Salon from Théophile Thoré. In 1848 she received a lucrative commission from the State for Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849; Paris, Musée d'Orsay), which, when exhibited the next year, brought her further critical and popular acclaim. Typical of the Realist interest in rural society manifested in the contemporary works of Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet, Ploughing was inspired by George Sand's rustic novel La Mare au diable (1846). She exhibited regularly at the Salon until 1855.

In 1865 Bonheur was awarded the Grand Cross of the Légion d'Honneur, the first woman so honoured. An early Bohemian and feminist, Bonheur defied female convention of the day by dressing in pants and smoking cigarettes.

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