Or, the painting food chain and the revolutionary importance of wearing pants.
Background – The Hierarchy of Genres
Before the photographic camera caused a crisis in the arts by the early 20th Century resulting in expressionism, impressionism, cubism, and various other modern-isms, there was a well-defined hierarchy of paintings – and therefore artists. Read more about it here at the Tate Glossary. At the very bottom were still life paintings, of household objects and food, and flowers.
For Rosa Bonheur, though, the most important thing to know is the rationale behind the Painting Food Chain: Europeans believed that literally everything belonged in a divinely-mandated Great Chain of Being, from God down to rocks, and humans were the greatest form of life on Earth. Literally, some things were created to be better than others. Have a look:
And now you understand almost all European and American history better! Glad we had that little diversion. It’ll help you in history class later, I swear. So, painters of inanimate things and plants were naturally below painters of animals, who were naturally below painters of the human form. But, in order to paint the human form, you have to practice, and spend quite some time observing and sketching actual humans. This means you have to have anatomy lessons, and live nude models. Now, in the days before first-year college students, the only people who would take their clothes off for money were literal prostitutes, or the truly desperate and destitute. Becoming a painter of the human form required seeing people naked and hanging out with sex workers. Because this was off-limits for women, women were denied the education and therefore the chance (with a few exceptions) to break into the highest ranks of painting.
(If you want to take a deep dive, check out this super-crunchy primary source at archive.org – in which Andre Felibien literally lays out the food chain of painters for what would become the French Academy. Hope you’re OK with clawing your way via google translate through some barely-modern French. I can’t really read this, since I took Spanish in High School, but it’s still a fascinating book, nonetheless. When you look at it, you’re looking at the book that shapes European art for the next several centuries, and casts a shadow, even today. If you’ve ever thought of some things but not others as Real Art; if you’ve been to an art museum or gallery; if you’ve ever wanted to know what it took to be a Real Artist; if you’ve ever wondered why some paintings are stupid expensive, but others are cheap – all of this means that the ideas in this book have gotten into your brain – and you haven’t even read it! That’s what people mean when they say something about how books can change the world or how knowledge is power. Now that you know, you can consciously choose to agree or disagree with the book’s view of art. Maybe YOU can be a Real Artist.)
The Hierarchy of Genres did get pushback, right from the start, however: as you can imagine, artists didn’t like being arbitrarily assigned to a lower income bracket forever. Landscape painters started sneaking people into paintings, and portraitists would sneak in allegorical details and landscape.
Which brings us right up to the middle of the 1800s. Painters were sneaking in attacks on the Great Painting Food Chain, the French Academy had a stranglehold on what art even means, and who gets to be a Real Artist – and then photography was invented, and massively jacked everything up.
Photography caught on like wildfire, and now you didn’t need a specialized artist to paint people, or anything else, really. The painting world faced a crisis. The hierarchy of genres (and therefore artists) could no longer hold, if anyone with a camera and a darkroom could make images of anything they wanted. Artists pushed harder than ever to break the art food chain, which brings us to the incredible life of Rosa Bonheur…
Rosa Bonheur was an animal painter, which was traditionally ranked above still life but below portrait and history painting. She went to slaughterhouses to study animal anatomy, and spent enormous amounts of time sketching in the field.
She went to zoos, and studied exotic animals, and animals she couldn’t get close to in the wild.
She was immensely popular during her lifetime, although tastes in art have changed, and she is less remembered now than some of her contemporaries, who were on the fringes of the art world at the time. Like Vincent Van Gogh.
As it turns out, riding horses, tromping across cow pastures, through heather, and forests, is pretty challenging in a corset and ankle-length skirts. Fed up with the restrictions of women’s clothes and gender roles getting in the way of her work and life in general, she got a prescription for pants from her doctor, so she could get an Official Pants Permit so the police wouldn’t arrest her for wearing men’s clothes.
Anyway, armed with an official Pants Permit, Rosa Bonheur went on to go to farms, and hunting grounds, and all sorts of rugged places, and rode lots of horses (astride, of course, not sidesaddle, because she has a permit to wear pants now). Her most famous painting is The Horse Fair (1855), which she worked on with her friend, Natalie Micas.
Rosa Bonheur went on to continue to wear pants, and paint acclaimed and highly-sought-after paintings – whose outrageous success despite being animal paintings further eroded the Hierarchy of Genres – until her eventual death at age 77 in 1899. She was an animal painter, but with the success and fame of a history painter.
This one’s a real painting:
You can also get all the info on Rosa Bonheur straight from the horse’s mouth (or at least really close), and read this book! Rosa Bonheur: the Artists (Auto) Biography by Anna Klumpke; Gretchen van Slyke, translator.