Monday, March 17, 2008

Animal Magnetism

In a world and age that seemed to conspire against her sex, Rosa Bonheur was lucky enough to have an enlightened father. Born March 16, 1822, Bonheur benefitted from her father’s belief in Saint-Simonianism, a form of Christian socialism that believed in the equal education for women. That sect held that every living creature possessed a soul, even animals, and, therefore, deserved to be treated as such. Not only did this belief inform the early feminism that helped Bonheur rise, but it instilled in her a profound respect for many animals, which manifests itself in works such as The Horse Fair (above, from 1835-1855). Bonheur loved animals and owned horses, lions, and an otter during her life.

Like Thomas Eakins, Bonheur knew animals from the inside out, attending and even performing dissections of animals. Her knowledge of anatomy fueled the realism of works such as Plowing in Nivernais (above, from 1850), which combined her love of animals with the popularity of rural genre scenes in the nineteenth century. During her lifetime, Bonheur became the most famous and financially successful female artist in the world. When social mores denied her and other female artists access to the human figure, Bonheur instead found drama and expression in the struggles of animals at work. Bonheur truly found a soul yearning for freedom in the animals in her paintings that is as expressive and nuanced as any ascribed to human beings.

Because she never married, wore men’s clothing, smoke cigarettes, and lived in houses with women friends her entire adult life, Rosa Bonheur is today held up not only as the one of the first great modern woman artists but also as one of the first great homosexual artists. Bonheur explained her mannish dress as necessary for someone working with animals all the time. Same-sex relationships in the nineteenth century held an entirely different meaning than they do today. Despite no evidence of sexual relationships with her women companions, modern critics looking for gender-based critiques have latched on to the circumstantial evidence to laud Bonheur as a lesbian pioneer. If that serves their needs in some way, then more power to them. However, I think that such labeling diminishes the real power and versatility of Bonheur’s art, especially in works such as Couching Lion (above, from 1872), which beautifully illustrates the power of the spirit of the lion in the same way that William Blake’s illustrated poem “The Tyger” gets to the essence of the creature. Bonheur’s ability to see past the physical into the spiritual realm of the animal kingdom matches her ability to transcend the limitations imposed on her gender and realize a whole new world of expression.

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