The daughter of an impoverished French painter, Raimond Oscar-Marie Bonheur, Rosa Bonheur was a famous 19th-century female artist known for her depiction of horses and for her eccentric lifestyle including dressing like a man and sketching at the Paris slaughterhouse.
Her work in realist style, eclipsed by modernism, fell into obscurity during much of the 20th century.
Rosa Bonheur spent her life in France but became associated with the American West as a collector of pictures of figures and animals associated with the frontier. She also had a set of prints of Native Americans depicted by George Catlin, Indian painter, and some of these she copied in later years. When Buffalo Bill Cody began appearances in Paris in 1889, she became a frequent visitor to his Wild West Show and made numerous sketches, with his permission, of persons and animals in the show. She also did a full-length portrait of Cody, which she presented to him, and into her later years, continued to do paintings of the American West with titles such as Buffalo Hunt, Indians Pursuing Wild Horses and Wyoming Stallion.
Bonheur grew up in Bordeaux and Paris and began earning money at age 12 as a painter of heraldic designs for family and friends. She had no formal art training, although she studied with her father, assisted him as a teacher in his drawing school, and copied Old Masters at the Louvre. When her father died in 1849, she and her sister, Juliette, ran the school until 1860. That year, the sisters bought a chateau in the Forest of Fontainebleu, and calling it Chateau de By, it remained the primary home of Rosa and her life-long companion, Nathalie Micas. Many animals lived on the premises including boars, stags, horses, oxen and lions.
She began sketching horses at the Paris horse market at the Boulevard de l'e Hospital and her greatest success came at the Paris Salon of 1853 with her entry, The Horse Fair. By the end of her career, she had nearly 50 entries in the Salon, many of them animal subjects.
Among the honors she received for her work was a gold medal in 1855 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, a ribbon in 1865 of the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur from Empress Eugenie, and honorary membership in the Royal Academy of Watercolorists of London in 1885.
Bonheur died at Fontainebleau at age 77 from pulmonary influenza.