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Rosa Bonheur (1822-99)

A Lion's Head c.1870-91

Oil on canvas | 80.5 x 64.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 407226

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  • Rosa Bonheur (1822-99), the celebrated French animal painter, was trained by her father, the painter Raymond Bonheur. In the 1840s and 1850s, following the example set by Géricault, she made studies at slaughterhouses in Paris and at horse fairs. She was a strong, singular character who gained police permission to dress as a man, apparently to avoid drawing undue attention while she worked. Her huge masterpiece, Le Marché aux Chevaux (1853; New York, Metropolitan Museum), won her great popular acclaim, particularly in England, where the picture was exhibited and widely disseminated as a print. After 1856 she developed a more highly-finished style, following a tour of England and Scotland, where she had met Landseer. In 1857 she began painting a series of big cats - lions, tigers and panthers. In 1860 Bonheur and her partner Nathalie Micas bought the Château de By, near Fontainebleau, where they kept a menagerie. The Château is now the Musée de l'Atelier de Rosa Bonheur.

    Bonheur's menagerie contained stags, mouflons, wild boars, a gazelle and lions (including the one portrayed here) and ‘they all, great and small, moved about in complete liberty’ (Stanton 1910 p. 344). The artist’s unique relationship with these creatures is borne out by the many anecdotes in Theodore Stanton’s Reminiscences. One describes how the young lions, in a ‘wagon like a cage’ with dividing bars were fed by Bonheur and that ‘These lions were let loose later in an open court-yard where Rosa could sketch them. They gradually became very tame, so that their mistress, whom they were evidently fond of, could caress them (Stanton 1910 p. 343). This setting enabled her to draw and paint with an understanding of anatomy and endow the ‘portraits’ with an element of psychological insight of the creatures themselves.

    This painting appeared in a catalogue of works from the studio of Rosa Bonheur at the Hanover Gallery, New Bond Street, London that accompanied an exhibition that took place just prior to the vast Paris studio sale of 1900 (No 9, Lion’s head and shoulders). A label from Sir Arthur Tooth & Sons on the reverse, suggests that he may have acted as some kind of intermediary during the sale of the painting. 

    Paris 1900 (Bonheur Atelier sale) (9); the reverse bears an impressed wax mark: VENTE / 1900 / ROSA BONHEUR; said to have been purchased for Edward VII from ‘M. Simon’? a friend of the artist, from the studio sale; first recorded at Buckingham Palace in 1909 (BP 1909 p.196), later at Marlborough House in 1912 (see RCIN 2102018) and 1925 (MH 1925 p.131) 

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas


    80.5 x 64.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external)

    111.1 x 95.8 x 11.3 cm (frame, external)