The Artist Who Dressed As She Pleased

Bonheur Rosa Bonheur dressed in trousers when women were still trussed in corsets. She required permission from the prefect of police to do so, but she was unapologetic about her choices. She lived her life as she pleased. She said, “The epithets of imbeciles have never bothered me.” Among the great Victorian examples of eccentricity Bonheur stands out as someone whose personal life and work intertwined in ways that benefited both.

Best know as a painter and sculptor of animals, she grew up in a household notable for its affiliation with Saint-Simonianism, a utopian socialist movement based on the value of work and brotherly love. The movement advocated such things as the abolishment of inheritance and equality for women. Her father, a landscape painter, urged his children to focus on art based on nature. Both these philosophical modes of thought influenced her heavily.


Rosa often chose to wear dresses in public

While Rosa received a relatively traditional artistic education as a child, she studied the anatomy of animals at the National Veterinary Institute in Paris as well. She also studied anatomy and osteology among the slaughterhouses of Paris. She was known for meticulous accuracy and attention to detail. She began painting animals in her early teens.

Her first recognition came for Ploughing the Nivernais, a massive canvas commissioned by the French government for which she received 3000 francs and a First Medal at the Salon of 1849. Far from sentimental, the painting, like most of Bonheur’s work portrays animals realistically, with preference for strength and dignity. Her other great work, The Horse Fair, completed in 1855 won international fame, including the attention of Queen Victoria. When Bonheur visited Scotland, the queen received her to voice her admiration. Paintings of individual animals, notably her beloved lions, are intermixed with many works depicting people working with groups of animals.

Ploughing the Nivernaise, Rosa Bonheur, 1849

Rosa was by far the most famous woman artist of her day, so much so that Bonheur dolls were created. One little girl who received one was Anna Klumpke, an artist who became her companion in later life. Bonheur may have tended to modesty (there are mixed opinions) and she didn’t exhibit her work for many years, possibly a reaction to the burdens of fame. Her popularity and the bulk of her income in later life came from England and America rather than France. However, she received a number of accolades in her own country, including the Legion of Honour from the Empress Eugénie.


Empress Eugény visits Bonheur in her studio

Fiercely independent, She lived quietly with the artist Nathalie Micas, her lifelong companion, with whom she formed a household in her early twenties. Nathalie died in 1898, and Anna Klumpke became Bonheur’s companion after her death. Klumpke was the sole heir to Bonheur’s estate. The three women are buried together in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Bonheur’s Permission de Travestissement

As to those trousers, in accordance with French law Bonheur had license to dress as a man, a Permission de Travestissement, signed by the prefect of police. Trousers, she asserted, were a practical garment for a painter and absolutely required when visiting slaughter houses with male students. She said, “I was forced to recognize that the clothing of my sex was a constant bother. That is why I decided to solicit the authorization to wear men’s clothing from the prefect of police.” She often wore dresses in public, and pants at work and at home, but was known to ride astride through Paris in trousers. She also smoked both cigarettes and stogies (sometimes sharing a smoke with art dealers), cut her hair short, kept a menagerie that included lions and a stag along with gazelles and sheep, and generally did as she pleased in her own home. She cared little for the opinions of others, those imbeciles who never bothered her.


The Horse Fair, by Rosa Bonheur 1855

For more information see:

Blume, Mary and The International Herald Tribune, “The Rise and Fall of Rosa Bonheur,” The New York Times, October 4, 1997; Accessed February 16, 2018

“Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899),” The Art History Archive, n.d.; Accessed February 16, 2018

Stanton, Theodore ed., The Reminiscences of Rosa Bonheur, London: Andrew Melrose, 1910; via Google Books, Accessed February 16, 2018


Caroline Warfield has been many things, but is mostly a storyteller these days. She lets her characters lead her to adventures while she nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. In addition to History Imagined, she is a regular contributor to The Teatime Tattler, a blog in the shape of a fictional nineteenth century scandal sheet.

She became fascinated by the complex and colorful figures of the Victorian era while researching  her current series, Children of Empire, is set in the 1830s.

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