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The Horse Fair - Rosa Bonheur

Rosa Bonheur was never content to let her last picture remain the best. The great success of her “Oxen Plowing” created in her the desire to do something better. With this in mind she set to work planning her great picture “The Horse Fair,” which was destined to become the most famous horse picture known.

Did she sit down before her canvas and proceed to sketch horses in every conceivable attitude? No. She spent just one and one-half years in preparation before she felt ready to make her picture.

Her friends placed their finest horses at her disposal to use as models, but this was not sufficient. She visited the horse markets where she studied all sorts of beautiful animals and sketched them in every imaginable position. To avoid the rude remarks made about her for entering the horse markets, she donned the attire of a man and then went about her work quietly and persistently.

Her horses were to be two-thirds life size. For that reason an immense canvas was required, and the artist had to continually use a ladder as she worked. This great piece of art was completed in 1853, and was then ready for the Salon. The admiration which this painting received, was beyond that ever received by any other modern picture.

After the picture had been exhibited, Rosa Bonheur received the rare honor of exhibiting any pictures in the future without previous examination—an honor which rarely comes even to a great artist.

Later the painting was exhibited at Ghent. The artist was offered 40,000 francs by Mr. Gambert, a picture dealer, and the offer was accepted. Finally it was bought by a wealthy man in New York who paid 300,000 francs for it, and it now hangs in the Metropolitan Art Museum.

Also of interest is this tidbit:

The French consider "Ploughing" to be Rosa Bonheur's masterpiece, perhaps because they own it. In England, however, where she is even more highly esteemed than in France, "The Horse Fair," — which they own! — is called her chef d'ceuvre. It occupied a year and a half in its painting. The studies for it were made in an old horse market. That she might not attract attention in frequenting this place, she adopted male attire.

The original painting is now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. A replica is in London, and there exist two others, one in water colors.

"It is a group of twenty or more strong Percheron horses; they are white, dappled, black, and splendid in the energy of action and draught power indicated. Some are ridden, some led by sporting, tricky grooms, whom, notwithstanding their frequent jests at her expense while making her studies, she has as faithfully painted as exultant in the mastery of the noble brutes. The scene is a familiar spot of Paris, with the dome of the Invalides and an avenue of trees seen in the background.

"Solid and firm modelling; accuracy of action rendered with spirit; fidelity to patient observation; the representation of space above, before, and behind her figures; fine rendering of the spirit of the animals, are the qualities of the pictures, and, with the landscape of great grandeur added, represent her style." — Stranahan.



1. Sketch briefly the life of Rosa Bonheur.
2. What honors were bestowed upon her?
3. Where did Rosa make her home in her later life?
4. How did Rosa Bonheur prepare for the painting of “The Horse Fair"?
5. Tell about the size of the painting.
6. When was it completed? Where first exhibited? Where next? How received?
7. To whom and for how much did Rosa sell this picture? To whom and for how much was it next sold?
8. Where is this picture now?
9. Describe “The Horse Fair.”
10. What do you like best about the picture?



In the quiet old town of Bordeaux, on the west coast of France, was born, October 22, 1822, one of the world’s most famous artists, Rosa Bonheur. Her father was an artist. Her mother was a musician. Rosa’s waking hours were spent in playing with the cats and dogs. She loved every animal that came along, no matter how wretched it might be.

Rosa BonheurWhen her father moved to Paris little Rosa became very homesick for the familiar scenes in her quiet old home in Bordeaux. There was a school for boys nearby, and the master, seeing the loneliness of the little girl, asked her father to send her with her brothers to his school. The boys became very fond of her, for she entered into their sports as readily and with as much spirit as one of their own number.

In 1835, Rosa’s mother died, leaving the father to care for four small children. The family now had to be separated. Juliette, Rosa’s sister, was sent to a friend of the mother in Bordeaux; the boys to one boarding school; and Rosa to another. Rosa, at least, did not feel happy with this change. She had always lived a free, unrestrained life, and to thus be held within the bonds of school life was too much for the child. She made a dash for freedom, so transgressing on the rules of the school that the authorities of the institution gave her up in despair and she went joyously home to her father.

Rosa’s father was so busy with the giving of his lessons that he had no time to instruct his little daughter. She was free to amuse herself as she wished, which she did by drawing and painting. One day, upon returning home to his studio, he was surprised to find that she had sketched a very lovely bunch of cherries. After that he took time to give her lessons, and she progressed so rapidly that she was soon able to give lessons herself. She was advancing so well that she took to copying famous masterpieces in the Louvre, and these copies were so well done that she received good prices for them in the market places.

In 1847 Rosa Bonheur received her first prize, a gold medal of the third class, presented in the king’s name. One of her best works, “Oxen Plowing”, was painted for the Salon exhibit of 1849.

After her return to Paris, she withdrew to the village of By, in the very heart of the grand old forest of Fontainebleau. Here at By, Rosa purchased a rambling old house where she kept a menagerie consisting of birds of all kinds, and animals, both wild and domestic. Here she lived the life of a peasant, rising early, and retiring at the setting of the sun, eating the simplest of food and painting to her heart’s content.

In 1893 she had bestowed upon her the greatest honor which can come to an artist, that of becoming an officer in the “Legion of Honor.” The Cross of the Legion of Honor was pinned on her by Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III. She died on May 25, 1899.


Jean Francois MilletIn a little hamlet called Barbizon, near Paris, there lived during the middle of the last century a group of artists of whom possibly the greatest was Jean Francois Millet. The aim of the Barbizon men was to paint nature; they were among the first to portray natural landscape.

Millet loved the peasants and the country. He understood them and their lives, for he had been born (in 1814) in a little peasant town in Normandy, close by the English Channel, and lived there as a boy.

The Millets were good, kind, and hardworking. They loved nature, music, art, and good books. To gain a living from the little farm had meant hard work; father, mother and Francois had worked out of doors while grandmother had cared for the house and the little children.

During those busy years in the fields Millet had but little time for his beloved drawing, but when he was almost a man he was spared. He went to study first in Cherbourg and later in Paris, but his best teachers were the old masters, especially Michelangelo.

There were many years of poverty and of trying to paint the so-called “pretty” pictures that would sell. He remembered the country and the peasants and wanted to paint them. No one had ever made pictures of such subjects, but Millet decided to paint what he understood—to be true to himself. With his little family he left Paris and went to Barbizon, where he lived for the rest of his life. Near by were the Forest of Fontainebleau and the broad fields where peasants labored summer and winter.

In Barbizon Millet did most of his best work. By being true to himself, unafraid of poverty, Millet built for the future. For a long time neither he nor his works were understood, but during his last years it was seen that he was painting truly and well. Appreciation grew, first in England and America, and then in France. At last, shortly before he died in 1874, Millet was honored by his country and given a place with the great masters. Among his famous paintings besides “The Gleaners," are:

  • “The Sower,”
  • “The Angelus,”
  • “The Shepherdess,”
  • “Going to Work,”
  • “Sheep Shearers,"
  • “Man with a Hoe,”
  • “Woman Spinning,”
  • “Feeding Her Birds.”