The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur

Why is Rosa Bonheur’s painting The Horse Fair important?

  • Muscularity in motion
  • Obedience and freedom in The Horse Fair
  • Bonheur – LGBT pioneer and fashion iconoclast

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When I hear about a buff and muscular physique, The Horse Fair comes to mind. I’ve never seen human muscularity and strength shown with such naked bravado in an oil painting. These horses overwhelm their trainers. Mere man can’t quell their vigor. I love this work by Rosa Bonheur thanks to that power shift. These horses are the very definition of animal magnetism. They’ve got sensuality built into sleek equine bodies. Before I saw this painting I never would have believed a horse could be sexy. In fact, I didn’t even like horses much. Then all it took were Bonheur’s majestic beauties. A single painting changed my mind.

The trainers engage stallions in a pseudo dance. The wranglers have a purpose – to sell these horses. They know what’s up. But physical control, that belongs to the stallions. Of course, they’re trained horses up for sale at the fair. So, there’s a presumption of behavior from these champions. That’s also part illusion. Because it’s a challenge to know what an animal might do at any moment. They’re a reminder of our inherent wildness as animals. Even a well-trained horse can be unpredictable. So can the most obedient humans. Everybody’s got a breaking point.

But The Horse Fair’s more about working together than breaking up. Bonheur intertwines horse and man as equals. Instead of only controlling them, trainers show us their power. Their entanglement reveals equine nobility and dignity. They’re the power source for this bright canvas. I also love how several horse trainers wear stark white shirts wide open at the chest. This symbolic machismo parallels the gleaming horse flanks. It boasts of their chest muscularity. The trainers seem to drown – surrounded by thick, muscular limbs. Horses swirl around them like a tsunami.

The Horse Fair

Animal Nature by Rosa Bonheur

Rosa Bonheur painted The Horse Fair in 1852. At first, critics denounced her feathery trees. So, she repainted them in 1855. Her new, sturdier trees balanced the scene. Still, the trees blend into Bonheur’s smudgy blue sky. In fact, this unified background accentuates the individuality of each horse. She loved animals. So, this helped her express that adoration. Bonheur illuminates each horse with careful attention. For instance, the two black and white rearing beauties at center seem like an embattled couple. The white pair next to them submit to their trainers with reluctant obedience. Tails tied and heads lowered, this duo seem in sync. After all, their legs move in perfect, parallel positions. When viewers look deeper into The Horse Fair, each horse represents an aspect of animal nature. Their faces express familiar feelings – from rebellion to submission.

These horses move with magic. It resonates urgency. Viewers get caught in the grip of this tumult and tension. Animal muscles flex in The Horse Fair while our minds whirl – watching them. Bonheur paints them with such majesty. We get wrapped into the drama of the scene. I like to look at the conflict here as a personality test. Although working together to find their way, horses and men have different goals. On a physical level, these men want to control the horses. Maybe you’re pulling for the trainers to succeed. After all, order and obedience feel so neat and tidy – a relief. Or is the bold spirit of these horses more compelling? They want freedom. Viewers may prefer this side of the story. Horse Fair be damned, let the horses run. This painting balances both sides. Take your pick. Some horses seem wild. Others tame. We even see it on their faces – in their eyes.

Bonheur captures these detailed expressions. She highlights the unique beauty of each animal in action. Bonheur studied horse anatomy and visited many horse fairs over two years. In fact, she went to at least two per week. This was an extraordinary feat in the mid 1800s. During the conventional Victorian era women were unwelcome at Horse Fairs. They stuck out as illegitimate and inappropriate. This was a man’s world – not just a horse’s. So, how did Bonheur do this? She was exceptional. It wasn’t only that Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie of France already loved her paintings. Bonheur also dressed like a man. She got special dispensation from the police that granted her the right to dress this way. As a result, most Horse Fair attendees didn’t notice her. But those who recognized Bonheur knew she was an esteemed royal favorite. This was her ticket to a masterpiece. We wouldn’t have The Horse Fair without Bonheur’s exceptionalism. Not only as a painter. But also as a woman ahead of her time.

The Horse Fair – FAQs

What did Rosa Bonheur say that The Horse Fair was inspired by?

When asked about her inspiration, Bonheur named George Stubbs, Théodore Gericault, Eugène Delacroix, and ancient Greek sculpture. She called The Horse Fair her own “Parthenon frieze.” Here she’s talking about the engravings on the ceiling of the ancient marble Parthenon. These depict horses in battle with soldiers on their backs.

It’s an intriguing parallel because Bonheur’s horses are also embattled. She carried the role of horses into her age. Showing them about to be sold points to their vulnerability. Just as horses put their lives on the line for soldiers in 440 BC. They’re bought and sold like farm equipment in 1850s Paris. Some horses on the Parthenon ceiling obey with placid indifference. Others rear on their back legs. So, Bonheur’s allusion fits even if it seems far off at first.

What is Rosa Bonheur known for?

Rosa Bonheur was a French sculptor and painter in the 1850s.  As an artist, she’s famous for her accurate and detailed animal renderings. But Bonheur holds an esteemed position in LGBT history as well. She was a true pioneer. In 1836 she met and coupled up with Nathalie Micas. They stayed together for the rest of their lives.

As an out lesbian, Bonheur still held an esteemed position in society. She’s often cited as the most famous 19th century woman painter. The royals adored Bonheur. Even Queen Victoria, who’s come to represent an era of prudity. In fact, she was more popular in England than her homeland France. Still, the French Empress Eugénie gave her the Legion of Honor on 1865.

How did Rosa Bonheur dress as a man to paint The Horse Fair?

This painting marks a critical shift for Bonheur’s personal life. Policing female clothing was the norm in her day. Women wore traditional attire (dresses and skirts) or risked arrest. But Bonheur asked for exemption. She said wearing pants helped her work better with animals. This is why she wore loose blouses and casual trousers, male peasant clothes. Although she held higher status than peasant, this was how Bonheur dressed in male attire.

In order to do so in public, she got a permission de travestissement from the Paris police. This was to avoid drawing attention to herself at the Horse Fair in 1850s Paris. Before this, Bonheur had been harassed at a Paris slaughterhouse in 1845. That’s where she started studying horse anatomy. Speaking of firsts, Bonheur was the first woman in France to do this kind of intense hands-on research.

The experience dressing as a man to research The Horse Fair changed Bonheur. After that she chose to wear male attire all the time. She was the first but Rosa also had a literary twin in the French writer Georges Sand. Sand wore male attire, got legal sanction for it, and became a celebrated master during the same era in Paris.

Enjoyed this The Horse Fair analysis?

Check out these other essays on French Painters.

Janson, H. W., Janson, Anthony F. History of Art. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers. 6th edition.

The Horse Fair at The Met

Mackay, James, The Animaliers, E.P. Dutton, Inc., New York, 1973

Restoration story at The National Gallery

Ashton, Dore and Denise Browne Hare. Rosa Bonheur: A Life and a Legend, (New York: Viking, 1981

Grace Glueck, Beyond Bonheur’s The Horse Fair, The NY Times: Art Review, Dec. 19, 1997

Phaidon Editors (2019). Great women artists. Phaidon Press.

Lampela, Laurel (2001). “Daring to Be Different: A Look at Three Lesbian Artists”. Art Education.

Boime, Albert (December 1981). “The case of Rosa Bonheur: Why should a woman want to be more like a man?”. Art History.

Pasco, Allan H. (2006). “George Sand”. Nouvelles Françaises du Dix-Neuviéme Siécle: Anthologie (in French). Rookwood Press.