What Can 21st Century Female Entrepreneurs Learn from a 19th Century Trailblazer Artist?
Picture this: the early 1800s, and an unmarried, female, queer (allegedly), painter gained international success and financial independence. Maybe it sounds like fiction, but it’s just the start when talking about the legacy of Rosa Bonheur, a French painter who lived from 1822-1899.
In a time where women weren’t allowed to wear pants, Bonheur was an audacious pioneer who challenged not only the rules of art but also of society. She did not pay attention to society’s expectations of her, but created her own path to success and independence, becoming the first female artist to achieve international fame.
Her struggle may sound similar to some: it is a problem that female entrepreneurs of today are often faced with. They must operate within a male-dominated arena that doesn’t regard them as equals. So what can we, female entrepreneurs and artists, learn from Bonheur, and 19th-century female artists that helped forge a new path for the women that came after them? Their passion, perseverance, and audaciousness are definitely important traits, and their accomplishments despite societal limitations.
So we decided to throw away limitations on women’s history month. We will continue the conversation by highlighting the achievements of important female artists from the past, and what female entrepreneurs can learn from them -starting with Rosa Bonheur.
“Genius has no gender,” Eugenie de Montijo, French Empress
Bonheur’s experience with art started early. Her father was an artist who believed in equality between women and men, so he had no problem breaking from social norms to encourage her artistic talents. From a young age, he taught her how to create art, even taking her to the Louvre to copy paintings and improve her talents. Women weren’t allowed to study at the national art academy, École des Beaux-Arts, so her father’s lessons were crucial to her foundation as an artist.
The observation skills she learned from her father, combined with her love of animals led to what ultimately dominated many of her paintings. Animals were always the subjects of her work, painted in almost humanistic ways within their own habitats. Bonheur believed that animals had souls too, and wanted to portray them as the powerful, emotional beings that they were, something that no other painter was doing.
Portraying them within their natural habitats was a challenge given the social expectations of women at the time. Dealing with animals was typically looked at as a man’s job, and entering that space as a woman was discouraged. But Bonheur was notoriously committed to her art and doing what she needed to observe the subjects of her paintings in their natural environment. she had no fear of sitting outside in dirty conditions to get what she needed. In one instance, she notoriously asked for a cross-dressing permit from the police so that she could attend a horse fair undisturbed. As a committed artist, she then attended that fair twice a week for a year disguised as a man.
She refused to let her environment limit her. Success came quick – in 1841, she started showing her artwork at the Paris Salon at the age of 19, leading to prizes, state commissions, and large amounts of money. In 1853 she unveiled her grand masterpiece, the result of that cross-dressing permit. Named, The Horse Fair, the 2.6-meter painting debuted at the Paris Salon before being shown across Great Britain and the U.S. The work shot her to international fame, causing European royals to visit her studio and commissions from the British Queen Victoria.
Her notoriety also led to French Empress Eugenie giving her a medal for Legion of Honor – making her the first female artist to receive it. Then, in 1894, Bonheur became the first woman to become an Officer of the Legion of Honor.
Widespread interest in her work meant she was able to achieve financial independence – something rare for a woman at the time. In a society where women needed to marry for survival and were limited in opportunities to own property, Bonheur bought a chateau, its surrounding property, and wild animals that she let roam free. She also never married, another social shock, but lived with her partner Nathalie Micas until Micas’ death.
“My father, that enthusiastic apostle of humanity, repeated to me many times that the mission of woman was to elevate the human race…It is to his doctrines that I owe the great and proud ambition I understood as proper to the sex which I am honoured to belong to, and whose independence I shall defend until my dying day,” Rosa Bonheur
Her Trailblazing Legacy
In 1905, Walter Shaw Sparrow published Women Painters of the World, a history of prominent female painters from the 1400s to the date of its publication. When discussing Bonheur, he called her “the greatest artistic personality in the feminine world of to-day.” This is not only because of her accomplishments but also what those achievements meant for future women in art.
During her life, many art critics compared her work to that of a man – putting her in a bubble. They limited her accomplishments to only existing in comparison to men saying, “this is so good, it could almost have been done by a man.” However, throughout her life, Bonheur fought that perspective, repeatedly showing that her art was good enough to stand on its own, for its own positive characteristics and style.
Like many of today’s entrepreneurs, Bonheur didn’t wait for her society to create a space for her. Instead, she had the courage to push ahead with her ideas, audaciously approaching her art and her life. Artistically, she painted in ways that continuously astonished the art world. Socially, she challenged the rules of her society to make sure she was able to pursue her passion. Nothing was going to get in her way.
Although her art may have been pushed aside as new art movements gained popularity, this legacy lives on. Bonheur showed women of that time period that they were talented and capable of working in the same field as men. Anne Robbins, the Associate Curator at the UK National Gallery, even said “She really extended the scope of possibilities offered to women. Not just as a painter- as a woman artist – but also as a woman at all.”
Her story is an inspiration to women today. Why not follow her example, and challenge our limits? Build our audacity to carve spaces in the world that haven’t been built yet, and look to what the future might hold.
Interested in more trailblazing 19th-century female artists? Check out The Artian blog here!