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Painting of two people fencing, one man is dressed as a woman

A look at diverse forms of love and desire through works in the Royal Collection

Rosa Bonheur (1822-99)

Donkey c.1840 - 1899

RCIN 913237

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Born in Bordeaux in 1822, Rosa Bonheur was the leading animal painter of her day and arguably the most famous female painter of the nineteenth century. She was a precocious talent, exhibiting works in Parisian Salons at the age of 19. Bonheur’s work, characterised by its powerful realism and remarkable understanding of anatomy, gained international acclaim. In 1865, she became the first female painter to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

Bonheur keenly observed her subjects from life, visiting slaughterhouses and horse markets. These were male dominated spaces, and Bonheur obtained a permit from the French authorities to dress in menswear in order to avoid harassment. Throughout her life Bonheur cut her hair short and wore trousers, heavy boots and smocks; masculine clothing provided her with a greater level of freedom.   

As far as males go, I only like the bulls I paint.

Rosa Bonheur had two long term relationships with women. She met her first partner Nathalie Micas when she was 14, and the two lived together for over 40 years. Their union was supported by Micas’ family; Bonheur recalled that Nathalie’s father entreated the two to ‘never leave each other’s sides’. Following Nathalie’s death in 1889, Bonheur met and fell in love with the American artist Anna Klumpke. Bonheur described their relationship as ‘a divine marriage of two souls’. Bonheur’s openness about her relationships was remarkable at a time when female same-sex desire was widely condemned.