Rosa Bonheur, Cheval de face avec son palefrenier (ca. 1892). Château de Rosa Bonheur. Photo © musée d’Orsay /Sophie Crépy.
It’s been 200 years since French artist Rosa Bonheur was born and people are still talking about what she was wearing when she painted live lions and tigers and cows.
Bonheur was one of a handful of mid-19th century women issued a police permit allowing them to wear men’s clothes. Yes, it’s true: the accomplished Bonheur—who audaciously used the monumental scale typically reserved for history painting to depict livestock, and was likely the most commercially successful woman artist of her time—wore pants.
But fascination with Bonheur’s persona has detracted from a closer look at her work, which portrayed animals with psychological presence and meticulous anatomical detail.