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A reflection of her life frozen in time, the Château de Rosa Bonheur is the former residence of influential 19th-century artist Rosa Bonheur, where she lived and worked surrounded by animals, the principal subject of her paintings. For many decades, Bonheur was the most famous woman artist in Europe, and her emancipated status in society permitted her to defy French laws banning cross-dressing, as well as to own a pet lioness called Fatma who allegedly roamed freely around the chateau.
The restored museum is an immersive experience, transporting visitors back in time to the date of Bonheur’s death, 25 May 1899, at the age of 77. Bonheur refurbished the 15th-century chateau to create a light-filled studio space and visitors can now wander around her private rooms, where many of her furnishings and possessions remain on display.
Born in Bordeaux in 1822, Bonheur was raised by a French-Jewish family of artists. Since the country’s academies denied women formal art training, she learned to paint in the studio of her father, Raymond Bonheur. By the age of 14 she had begun selling work, at 19 she exhibited at the Paris Salon for the first time. The same year, her father leased her a Parisian apartment in which she kept a myriad of creatures, including a goat, chickens, quail, canaries and finches. Her obsession with animals continued, and she was known to visit horse fairs and slaughterhouses for research.
“Living openly as a lesbian, she once famously remarked: ‘As far as males go, I only like the bulls I paint’”
A small woman at only four foot and nine inches in height, Bonheur nevertheless became a towering figure in the 19-century art world. She was the first female artist to receive the Legion of Honour, presented to her at the Chateau by Empress Eugenie, the spouse of Napoleon III. She dressed like a man (for which she officially obtained a police permit) but gained respect as well as notoriety for her unconventional practices. Living openly as a lesbian alongside her believed-to-be partner Nathalie Micas, she promoted women’s equality throughout her life, once famously remarking: “As far as males go, I only like the bulls I paint.”
The chateau is found in the commune of By, above the Seine River town of Thomery, and close to Fontainbleau. Bonheur’s chateau is on the edge of Fontainbleau forest, an area of untouched natural terrain that once inspired the painters of the Barbizon School, who converged at the Ganne Inn, now the Barbizon Painters’ Museum. Stylistically close to the realism of the Barbizon artists, Bonheur bought the property in 1859 aged 37, two years after Jean-François Millet painted his iconic image reflecting Barbizon realism The Gleaners.
“Visitors can see the artist’s paintbrushes, pots of paint powder, tools, notebooks, sketches, clothes, and even rolled up cigarette butts”
The chateau is a rare example of a historic house museum that has been preserved rather than refurbished: Bonheur’s presence in the chateau can still be felt. A lover of wildlife, the home was also a menagerie, with sheep, horses, monkeys, dogs, birds and of course her lioness all also living there.
“The home was a menagerie, with sheep, horses, monkeys, dogs, birds and of course her lioness all also living there”
Inside the chateau, visitors can see the artist’s used paintbrushes, pots of paint powder, tools, notebooks, sketches, clothes, and even rolled up cigarette butts. Outside, ten acres of beautiful forest and parklands surround the property. Bonheur’s home is now in the hands of Katherine Brault, a former communications specialist who bought the chateau in 2017 and is painstakingly preserving the artist’s legacy, breathing new life into the once dusty and rundown house to resurrect Bonheur’s memory.
Lydia Figes is an arts writer and editor. She is the co-founder of radicalwomenshistory
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