(Originally aired 2021/07/17 - listen here)
I thought it would be fun to get back to doing some biography episodes. For this one, I’d like to give a shout-out to my friend Carl Cipra, who sent me a magazine article about French artist Rosa Bonheur which was sitting there on my desk waiting to inspire me for a podcast topic.
Bonheur’s story is not simply that of a fascinating and talented woman who also engaged in a long-term domestic relationship with another woman—and whose family was enthusiastically supportive of that relationship—but also the all-too-familiar story of women who were considered geniuses and superstars in their own time but have been gradually erased from public awareness. It’s the tiresome phenomenon where people are tricked into thinking that “women didn’t do X” and each generation has to assemble lists, and write books, and do podcasts to prove the falseness of the claim.
But let’s start out with Bonheur’s life and background. She was born in 1822, the oldest child, in a family that would be full of artists. Her father painted landscapes and portraits and married one of his drawing students, a brother and sister were also painters, and another brother was a sculptor. Her father’s preoccupation with the religious-philosophical movement of San-Simonianism left the family destitute, although the movement’s embracing of gender equality led him to support education for girls and was a significant influence on Bonheur’s refusal to let gender limit her. She was evidently a boisterous child—a trait that led people to view her as masculine—and her formal schooling was something of a trial for all concerned. But she took to drawing avidly and her mother used her joy in art as a gateway to get her through the other basics of education.
Her mother, alas, died when Bonheur was eleven. Her formal education ended at that point, but after an abortive assignment as an apprentice dressmaker, her father took her on as an art student and set her on the same program of study that she would have had access to in art academies if only she had been a boy. Eventually, the Bonheur family became their own art studio.
Throughout her life, Bonheur’s love and greatest triumphs were with naturalistic paintings of animals and landscapes. She studied her subjects both from life—eventually collecting something of a menagerie for the purpose that included a pet lioness—and in death, studying anatomy at slaughterhouses. At age 18 she had her first salon exhibition, including a painting of two rabbits. But her most famous works were monumental paintings of agricultural scenes: her first professional commission Ploughing in the Nivernais and perhaps her best known work The Horse Fair—a painting measuring 8 feet tall and 16 feet wide, depicting horses being displayed for sale in the heart of Paris. The horses crackle with energy and movement, depicted with photographic realism against a somewhat softer and more nebulous landscape. I love that particular work. It’s unforgettable. I remember first seeing it used on the endpapers of the edition of Anna Sewell’s equine biography Black Beauty that I was given as a child. Though of course at the time I knew nothing about the artist.
With works like The Horse Fair, Bonheur catapulted into artistic fame and economic success. She bought a chateau to use as a home base and studio. She traveled to Scotland to paint and made a fan of Queen Victoria while there. The French empress Eugénie presented her with the Legion of Honour. She hobnobbed with royalty and the artistic elite of the day. She intersected with other prominent female celebrities such as actress Charlotte Cushman’s circle, and novelist George Sand. But none of that is why I’m doing a podcast about her.
Bonheur rejected conventional norms of femininity in all manner of ways, from choosing an artistic career, to habitually wearing trousers “for practicality,” she said, when tramping about in fields and slaughterhouses in search of models. This was at a time when it was literally illegal in France for women to wear trousers and she had to be granted a “permit to cross-dress” from the police, by a doctor’s request that it was “for the sake of her health.” Formal portraits and photographs of her show her in skirts with a braided masculine-style coat, but personal reports indicate that trousers were her more typical everyday dress. She joked, in a letter to a friend, that people who met her weren’t always sure what sex she was. When asked why she had never married, she deflected. No one had ever asked her. She was married to her art.
But a more relevant fact is that Rosa Bonheur lived for four decades in a loving committed partnership with Nathalie Micas, a woman she had known since childhood and a fellow painter. The partnership ended only with Nathalie’s death, after which Bonheur entered into another partnership, this time with American artist Anna Klumpke, whom Bonheur named the sole heir to her estate—somewhat to the dismay of her birth family.
But the story of Bonheur’s relationships with women is even more intriguing for the acceptance they found from their family and community. Around the time that Bonheur was 19, the wealthy Monsieur Micas hired Bonheur’s father to paint Nathalie’s portrait and the two young women met. The Micases became something of surrogate parents to Bonheur, encouraging her to set up her own studio and helping her find commissions. Rosa and Nathalie became inseparable. And about a decade later when Monsieur Micas was on his deathbed, he evidently commended the two women to each other and gave them his blessing as a couple. I say “evidently” only because the account is a dramatization by Anna Klumpke of what Rosa Bonheur had recounted to her, so a certain amount of interpretation may have been involved. So whether Nathalie’s father actually had the two women kneel down at his bedside so he could place his hands on their heads and proclaim, “Never leave each other’s side, my dear children, and may God keep you.” or whether the reality was somewhat different, in any event Bonheur moved into the Micas home and the two were openly recognized as a couple until Nathalie’s death 40 years later.
In the 19th century, professional women with female partners had to deal with societal expectations that one would play the husband role and the other the wife. Even when the couple themselves didn’t share out their labor that way, society might assign the labels, following assumptions based on age or status. But an extremely common pattern was for the couple themselves to adopt roles modeled after heterosexual partnerships. A woman with a career, particularly one in the arts or education, would find it difficult to maintain her professional independence in the context of a heterosexual marriage, and many such 19th century women offered this as the reason for not marrying. But a household still needed management, and when the majority of women were trained up to perform that management, it might seem natural for the member of a female couple who did not have an outside profession—or whose profession was seen as less prominent or less prestigious—to take on that role.
A few years after Nathalie’s death, Bonheur—now in her late 70s—struck up a relationship with 43-year-old Anna Klumpke, an American artist of portraits and genre scenes. Klumpke was born in 1856 in San Francisco to a family whose wealth came from real estate. (When you consider that she was born only 7 years after the California gold rush of 1849, you can imagine the context of that success.) A childhood leg injury that resulted in permanent disability motivated her mother to take her to Germany for treatments, and that—along with her parents’ divorce—meant that she spent most of her youth in Europe. In her mid-20s, Klumpke began studying art formally in Paris, with exhibitions of her work in the mid 1880s. Rosa Bonheur’s work was part of her studies at the time, though it isn’t clear that they met until later. After a few years back in the States teaching, Klumpke returned to Paris. She met Bonheur in 1895 with the intent of painting her portrait.
Bonheur was bluntly honest with her about what a relationship might mean. “Most people take a pretty dim view of women who live together,” she wrote. “I’ve been battling that prejudice my whole life long.” But 3 years after they met, they moved in together and signed a contract that may have served as a formal engagement, though the substance was that Bonheur would create an art studio for Klumpke and in return Klumpke would paint three portraits of her and write her biography. Bonheur died the next year, but Klumpke fulfilled the promised biography and completed at least one portrait. The nature of what they were to each other may be interpolated from the fact that Anna Klumpke was named Rosa Bonheur’s sole heir, though Klumpke softened some of the Bonheur family’s objections by auctioning off a number of Bonheur’s works and splitting the proceeds. She founded a women’s art school named after Bonheur and established an artistic prize in her name, as well as setting up a museum of Bonheur’s life in the chateau she had inherited from her. Klumpke divided her time between Paris and San Francisco and finally settled in the latter, but after her death she returned to Paris to be buried alongside both Rosa Bonheur and Nathalie Micas.
How do we interpret these women’s lives? If they never used the word “lesbian” should we apply it to them? How should we honor Bonheur’s life-long gender transgression? Their lives were set against the background of late 19th century Paris, when an entire subculture of queer women and men was developing, yet they don’t appear to have participated in the world of demi-monde cafes and decadent literature that was the more overt face of French lesbianism at the time.
Bonheur was somewhat cagey about the nature of her relationships with Micas and Klumpke, perhaps in understandable reaction to the mean-spirited speculations of others. She once wrote about Micas, “Had I been a man, I would have married her, and nobody could have dreamed up all those silly stories. I would have had a family, with my children as heirs, and nobody would have any right to complain.” She described her relationship with Klumpke as “the marriage of two souls” using the language of romantic friendship, and described her love as “wholly virtuous,” while referring to Klumpke as her wife. And yet the woman who has purchased Bonheur’s chateau-studio and is reviving it as a museum in her honor finds it possible to claim she was, “A woman without a husband, a family, children, a lover—imagine!” So we will imagine, and perhaps see that family and lover that the world had trouble recognizing.
A biographical sketch of 19th century French painter Rosa Bonheur and the two women she shared her life with.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
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