At Large  June 23, 2022  Anna Claire Mauney

Why Rosa Bonheur's "Horse Fair" is a Masterpiece of Realism

The Met. Gift of Cornelius Vanderbilt, 1887. 87.25.

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair, 1852–55. Oil on canvas. 96 1/4 x 199 1/2 in. (244.5 x 506.7 cm).

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) once referred to her best-known artwork as her very own, “Parthenon frieze.” Rightly so, in this author’s opinion. Bonheur put a year and a half into location-based preparatory sketching for The Horse Fair and pulled from a number of unique masterworks to find inspiration for the final product. Unsurprisingly, it drew widespread praise upon its Salon debut in 1853.

On top of that, the artwork epitomizes one of the most important styles of the era. As such, it (and other works by Bonheur) went on to influence a myriad of household names—contemporaneous and contemporary—within the art world.

Rosa Bonheur, Study for The Horse Fair, 19th century. Black chalk, gray wash, heightened with white. 5 3:8 x 13 1:4 in. (13.7 x 33.7cm). Bequest of Edith H. Proskauer, 1975. 1975.319.2.
the met. Bequest of Edith H. Proskauer, 1975. 1975.319.2.

Rosa Bonheur, Study for The Horse Fair, 19th century. Black chalk, gray wash, heightened with white. 5 3/8 x 13 1/4 in. (13.7 x 33.7cm).

Rosa Bonheur, Study for The Horse Fair, 1840-99. Black chalk and graphite. 7 1:4 x 16 3:16 in. (18.4 x 41.1cm). The Met. Gift of Alexander Johnson and Roberta Olson, in honor of Jacob Bean, 1991. 1991.463.
The Met. Gift of Alexander Johnson and Roberta Olson, in honor of Jacob Bean, 1991. 1991.463.

Rosa Bonheur, Study for The Horse Fair, 1840-99. Black chalk and graphite. 7 1/4 x 16 3/16 in. (18.4 x 41.1cm).

It is important to remember that Bonheur was ultimately more than a markedly achieved artist. She was also a fiercely independent and determined individual. For example, after she received unwanted attention and harassment while sketching on location, she began to disguise herself as a man for such outings.

Her socialist father, to an extent that was unusual for the nineteenth century, believed in equal rights and opportunities for all people. The artist once said, “To [my father’s] doctrines I owe my great and glorious ambition for the sex to which I proudly belong and whose independence I shall defend until my dying day.”

Wikimedia Commons. 

Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, Rosa Bonheur, 1898.

By the time Bonheur embarked on her masterful Horse Fair, she was already established as an incredible painter, especially of animals. Her choice, therefore, to depict the Parisian horse market of the Boulevard de l’Hôpital was not unexpected.

Even so, the manner in which she monumentalized the mundane through said subject matter remains breathtaking and important. In other words, the painting is the quintessence of nineteenth-century Realism.

Millet, a contemporary of Bonheur, also produced work that fundamentally shaped what we now think of as nineteenth-century Realism. Unlike Bonheur, whose work was so strikingly real in large part due to her scientific study of animal anatomy, Millet tended to feature unfettered depictions of human suffering in his paintings. As such, the latter artist’s work often turned heads and sparked controversy. For example, when Millet’s The Gleaners exhibited at the Salon of 1857, the painting's honest depiction of rural poverty was immediately perceived as scandalous.

Sothebys.

Rosa Bonheur, Spanish muleteers crossing the Pyrenees ( or Muletiers espagnols traversent les Pyrénées), 1857. Oil on canvas. 46 x 79 in. (116.8 x 200 cm).
 

More consistently, Millet and Bonheur also both fostered an idealized style that was clearly shaped by the art of the past. Such influences that are especially evident in The Horse Fair include Gustave Courbet, Théodore Gericault, Eugène Delacroix, and George Stubbs.

The similarities between Gericault and Bonheur are easiest to see in paintings such as Horsewoman, in which the overlap of subject matter, compositional drama, and Romanticism is quite clear.

The Met. Bequest of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman in honor of Mercedes Bass, 2019. 2019.141.11.

Théodore Gericault, detail of Horsewoman, 1820 or later.

In contrast, the influence of Delacroix is quite clear across his oeuvre. Another Romantic painter, he and Bonheur additionally shared a fascination with ancient Greek sculpture. That said, at least in terms of The Horse Fair, it seems Bonheur was particularly inspired by the classical equine sculpture of the Parthenon.

And finally, Courbet’s influence on Bonheur is primarily evidenced by the two artists’ tendencies to work at a monumental scale.

Bonhams.

Thomas Landseer, The Horse Fair after Rosa Bonheur. Engraving. 19 11/16 x 41 3/4 in. (50 x 106cm).

As previously mentioned, The Horse Fair received wide praise upon its debut at the Paris Salon of 1853. As is often the case in art history, the artwork was further popularized via the sale of prints. In this case, an engraving designed by Thomas Landseer and based on an earlier, watercolor version of the masterpiece took off. 

The Realist style, which Bonheur and her masterpieces both helped shape, ultimately went on to inspire the Impressionists. Although artists like Édouard Manet continued to paint modern imagery, their work was never as political as that of the Realists.

Painters Molly Luce and Wayne Thiebaud both credit Bonheur’s work as an early, pivotal source of inspiration. Luce stated particularly that The Horse Fair was the first work of art that made her want to pursue painting.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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