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Rosa Bonheur
(French, 1822–1899)
American Mustangs
after 1885
oil on canvas, 8 3/4" x 39 1/2"
Gift of Howard W. Lyon

Rosa Bonheur came from a family of artists. Her father Raymond, who was a painter and his daughter’s first art teacher, subscribed to the beliefs of Saint-Simonian socialism, a utopian program that preached, among other things, equality of the sexes. Her brother Isidore was a sculptor of animals. Despite the odds against a woman artist achieving lasting fame, with this early encouragement and training, combined with her talent and dedicated will, Bonheur came to be recognized internationally as one of the leading animaliers of her generation. Before she was granted special permission to do so, Bonheur often disguised herself as a man in order to study animals in slaughterhouses, when prevailing societal attitudes would have barred “the fairer sex” from such places. This first-hand study of anatomy lends her works an almost scientific accuracy, which distinguished it from the relatively sentimentalized and anthropomorphized animals in paintings by the well-known British animalier Edwin Landseer. In exchange for a number of studies of stallions she made for the Royal Horse Association, its president, John Arbuckle, gave Bonheur the horses pictured in the Tweed’s American Mustangs. Originally from Arbuckle’s Wyoming ranch and named Apache and Clair de Lune, the wild horses roamed freely on Bonheur’s estate, the Chateau of By in the Fontainebleau forest. When William Cody’s Wild West Show traveled to Paris in 1889, the staged exploits of Native American performers and wild animals captured the imagination and interest of the French public, and also attracted artists like Bonheur, Paul Gauguin and Edvard Munch. Bonheur visited the show daily, making sketches that resulted in at least seventeen paintings, including a portrait of Buffalo Bill. When Cody visited Le By, Bonheur made him a gift of the two horses, whereupon they were taken to join his show.

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