Home/Studio: Rosa Bon­heur and The Plein Air Artist

Elena Palacios Carral

0. Introduction

Artists are cur­rent­ly under­stood as curi­ous fig­ures. Their sites of liv­ing and work­ing typ­i­cal­ly extend beyond a sin­gu­lar fixed loca­tion such as the house, towards the stu­dio, the street, the cafe, and the land­scape beyond. Their lives are rarely organ­ised around con­ven­tion­al task divi­sions or fam­i­ly struc­tures and as a result, their prac­tices presage con­tem­po­rary society’s embrace of the nomadic free­lancer: a fig­ure who is sup­pos­ed­ly no longer bound by the nuclear fam­i­ly or their con­tin­u­ous fixed employ­ment. We may refer to this con­di­tion as the stu­dioifi­ca­tion of the home, or the process by which the home is trans­formed into the stu­dio. This paper will there­by study the rela­tion­ship between the two concepts—home and studio—and define their sig­nif­i­cance to the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry artist. 

While the his­toric events that led tra­di­tion­al artis­tic prac­tice towards a pre­car­i­ous exis­tence pre­cede the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, this study will focus on the peri­od from the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry to the end of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry and on the spe­cif­ic region between Paris and the For­est of Fontainebleau in France. It is in this pre­cise loca­tion that the idea of the home and stu­dio were insti­tu­tion­alised by the state and the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Paint­ing and Sculpture.

In 1806 artists were evict­ed from their stu­dios in the Lou­vre and in the same year, these salons were opened to the gen­er­al pub­lic. These par­tic­u­lar events, cou­pled with the after­math of the French Rev­o­lu­tion and the abo­li­tion of the guilds in 1791, pro­duced pro­found ram­i­fi­ca­tions for the life and work of artists. As such, the fig­ure of the artist endured a par­a­digm shift and under­went a process of class re-artic­u­la­tion and indi­vid­u­al­i­sa­tion: a free­lance actor made pre­car­i­ous by the state. 

In par­al­lel to these events, indi­vid­u­als and spaces alto­geth­er were going through a process of cod­i­fi­ca­tion that were con­sol­i­dat­ed in the Civ­il Code (Napoleon­ic Code).1 This code reor­gan­ised soci­ety around prin­ci­ples of pri­vate prop­er­ty, class and gen­der. As such, it extend­ed gov­ern­ment from the ter­ri­to­ry to its sub­jects.2 Artists were set against their sub­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion and the cat­e­gori­sa­tion of their spaces accord­ing to fac­tors such as their rou­tines, activ­i­ties and gen­der. In this con­text, the plein air artists and the par­tic­u­lar case of artist, Rosa Bon­heur can be seen as two dis­tinct forms of artis­tic prac­tice that emerged out of a very par­tic­u­lar idea of the artist and cit­i­zen at this time. Through their life, cir­cum­stance and prac­tice, both cas­es present an exam­ple of how cer­tain dis­tinc­tions or cat­e­gori­sa­tions estab­lished by the Napoleon­ic Code may have been enforced or trans­gressed. The plein air artist enlivened a pecu­liar use of the exte­ri­or and intro­duced the pos­si­bil­i­ty of main­tain­ing a peri­patet­ic exis­tence removed from prop­er­ty and for­mal train­ing. In con­trast, Rosa Bon­heur, hav­ing been not only an artist but a woman, was con­di­tioned to use the stu­dio as her cre­ative site. Her life and work was there­fore bound by an inte­ri­or and con­strained to the social expec­ta­tions of her gen­der, whilst the Plein Air artists con­tin­ued to roam free of such restraint.

I. Codification

The con­sol­i­da­tion of the bour­geoisie was in many ways aid­ed by the facil­i­ta­tion of admin­is­tra­tive con­trol with the cod­i­fi­ca­tion of French Soci­ety under a uni­fied civ­il law. The project of legal reform by Napoleon was ini­ti­at­ed in 18013 and intend­ed to stan­dard­ise forty-two pre-exist­ing legal codes4 across the Ancient Regime into a uni­fied sys­tem of law and jus­tice5 that could be applied to all cit­i­zens. Declared dur­ing March 1804, the French Civ­il Code did exact­ly that, whilst also ter­mi­nat­ing ancient class priv­i­leges”,6 in which no priv­i­leges were for­mer­ly recog­nised as a right from birth.7 Priv­i­leges were no longer assigned to spe­cif­ic groups (the artist being one of them), but to a domes­tic monar­chy. That is to say, a patri­archy or state gov­erned by a father and ruled under the notion of the patri­ar­chal family.

The pro­mul­ga­tion of the Civ­il Code was the cre­ation of an unfor­get­table sym­bol­ic sys­tem.”8 so wrote Jean Car­bon­nier. It fast became embed­ded in soci­ety and immor­talised in the paint­ings and writ­ings being pro­duced at the time. As such, the code irre­versibly entered the mem­o­ry of the French nation.” 9 It man­i­fest­ed itself in var­i­ous ways, from the idea of kin­ship with­in the nuclear fam­i­ly as the basic unit of soci­ety, to the organ­i­sa­tion of space and the meth­ods by which bound­aries were drawn. The West­ern canon­i­cal dis­tinc­tions that we have come to learn as stan­dard and have strug­gled so much to undo in the last cen­tu­ry were part of this cat­e­gori­sa­tion. Dis­tinc­tions such as pri­vate and pub­lic, inte­ri­or and exte­ri­or, cen­tre and periph­ery, male and oth­er, come pre­cise­ly from the sym­bol­ic process by which these, and many oth­er dichotomies were cod­i­fied, both visu­al­ly in signs and sym­bols and in writ­ing through the words of the law.

The pro­mul­ga­tion of the Civ­il Code and the imple­men­ta­tion of its his­tor­i­cal and sym­bol­ic sig­nif­i­cance per­mit­ted the bound­aries between alleged oppo­sites such as those men­tioned above, to be for­mal­ly con­trolled10. Lynn Hunt explains, para­dox­i­cal­ly an aggran­dis­ing pub­lic space and the politi­ci­sa­tion of every­day life ulti­mate­ly may have been respon­si­ble for the devel­op­ment of a more sharply dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed pri­vate space in the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry”.11 Iron­i­cal­ly, the Civ­il Code was pre­sent­ed as a step towards equal­i­ty and inclu­siv­i­ty, despite being ful­ly root­ed in the divi­sions and bias­es of the French Peo­ple”. It favoured the tri­umph of the bour­geoisie12, who in turn, were pre­sent­ed as the hege­mon­ic mod­el of the peo­ple”. There­fore, the code’s para­dox lies in its inten­tion to uni­fy soci­ety by draw­ing dif­fer­ences between them, rather than com­mon­al­i­ties. As a result, the con­cept of soci­ety as out­lined by the Civ­il Code, autho­rised the state to exclude any­one who failed to fit into the code’s per­ceived order of one hege­mon­ic group, race and class.13 As Michael Hardy and Anto­nio Negri explained, the con­struc­tion of the peo­ple” only eclipse(d) any inter­nal dif­fer­ences.”14 In defin­ing a sin­gu­lar group, the code con­struct­ed the idea of the mar­gin­al in the same breath and ulti­mate­ly cre­at­ed mar­gin­al subjects.

In addi­tion to the code, the fam­i­ly unit played a fun­da­men­tal role in the reg­u­la­tion of its sub­jects. As men­tioned pre­vi­ous­ly, by con­sid­er­ing the fam­i­ly as the basic unit of soci­ety, domes­tic­i­ty came to play—as Michelle Per­rot puts it—“the role of a hid­den god”.15 One of the code’s most preva­lent spa­tial man­i­fes­ta­tions was the way in which domes­tic spaces were organ­ised around notions of pri­vate and pub­lic. Divi­sions were force­ful­ly imple­ment­ed and spaces became asso­ci­at­ed and sep­a­rat­ed by gen­der and types of peo­ple. The pro­duc­tion of writ­ings and paint­ings (per­haps inad­ver­tent­ly in some cas­es) rein­forced the role of the nor­ma­tive and nor­mal­i­ty: Pris­ons and board­ing schools, bar­racks and con­vents, vagabonds and dandies, nuns and les­bians, Bohemi­ans and toughs, celi­bate indi­vid­u­als and insti­tu­tions, often where oblig­ed to define them­selves in rela­tion to the fam­i­ly or on its mar­gins. It was the cen­tre; they were the periph­ery”16. Such modes of sep­a­ra­tion instilled by the Civ­il Code, in addi­tion to the Rev­o­lu­tion, urged the repo­si­tioned role of art and artists with­in society.

Pri­or to Napoleon’s reign and dur­ing the year 1791,17 the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Paint­ing and Sculp­ture was abol­ished and the salons sub­se­quent­ly opened up to com­merce. Artists resumed their fight with the guilds to main­tain a monop­oly on Art and were wide­ly con­sid­ered a priv­i­leged body pro­tect­ed by the King. This per­ceived priv­i­lege gave them the sta­tus of a free artist” or an artist of the lib­er­al arts, as opposed to an arti­san. The lat­ter of which was con­sid­ered an infe­ri­or posi­tion. The artisan’s prac­tice, rather than intel­lec­tu­al, would have been diminu­tive­ly described as craft or man­u­al work. While the rela­tion­ship between man­u­al and intel­lec­tu­al labour, as well as the mate­r­i­al and imma­te­r­i­al qual­i­ties of art pro­duc­tion lie beyond the scope of this essay, it is impor­tant to be aware that these con­ver­sa­tions were—and still are—fundamental to the def­i­n­i­tion of free­dom” in art practices.

By the turn of the 1830s and the monar­chy of Louis Philippe d’Orleans, or the Bour­geoise King”,18 the ideas pre­sent­ed in the code became sys­temic. Arnold Hauser explained that from this point on, the bour­geoise is in full pos­ses­sion and aware­ness of its pow­er. The aris­toc­ra­cy has van­ished from the scene of his­tor­i­cal events and leads a pure­ly pri­vate exis­tence. The vic­to­ry of the mid­dle class is undoubt­ed and undis­put­ed.”19 Sarah Maza argued that while this became the most pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive, the Orleanist regime was actu­al­ly a cru­cial moment in the crys­talli­sa­tion of an anti­bour­geois strain cen­tral to the con­struc­tion of mod­ern French polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty.”20 This could be one of the rea­sons why the fig­ure of the Bohemi­an artist became so pop­u­lar dur­ing the mid to late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Dave Beech explains that the bohemi­an artist came to rep­re­sent anti-bour­geois val­ues the Roman­tic ant­i­cap­i­tal­ist affir­ma­tion of the aes­thet­ics, the myth of the artist as an unbind­able and self-gov­ern­ing genius […]. ” 21

The ideas expressed in the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Paint­ing and Sculp­ture dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion and those that ulti­mate­ly lead to the idea of the artist”, could be dat­ed back to the time of Diderot and his influ­en­tial writ­ings on the salons. Diderot pre­sent­ed artists in rela­tion to an idea of free­dom out­side of con­ven­tion­al patron­age. How­ev­er, as the church and King were their biggest patrons, artists had no choice but to respond to the demands of those in pow­er. Patrons such as the King, were in fact lib­er­at­ing” the artists from the cor­rup­tion of com­merce in allow­ing them to prac­tice art out­side the con­ducts of the guilds. Free­dom from com­merce was con­sid­ered a nec­es­sary pre­con­di­tion for the pro­duc­tion of art and instilled a hos­til­i­ty to com­merce that was encour­aged by sep­a­rat­ing artists from the guilds.22

Mey­er Schapiro explains that for Diderot, the artist’s inner free­dom is the impul­sive, unac­count­able flow of the pen­cil and brush, of images and ideas; verve, enthu­si­asm, spon­tane­ity, and nat­u­ral­ness are its out­ward signs.”23 and their depen­dence on a com­mand­ing patron seemed degrad­ing and incom­pat­i­ble with the artist’s dig­ni­ty.”24 Schapiro fur­ther elab­o­rates that for Diderot, it is the free man of the artist that draws one’s atten­tion and focus to paint­ing and sculp­ture,25 and that the free cit­i­zen can be found in the artist.26 These ide­o­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples were devel­oped through Diderot’s writ­ings in the mid-eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry and came to present a series of threats to artists. By sep­a­rat­ing paint­ing from tech­nique, the inter­nal­i­sa­tion of artis­tic prac­tice around notions of genius was exas­per­at­ed. In paint­ing, spon­tane­ity and cre­ativ­i­ty grad­u­al­ly became valu­able qual­i­ties in their own right and this even­tu­al­ly lead to the notion of art for art’s sake. Indeed, rather than receiv­ing a spe­cif­ic com­mis­sion under the patron­age of the King or church, the artist could now oper­ate unre­strict­ed: freely cre­at­ed art of artists respon­si­ble to them­selves alone, like the con­cept of intel­lec­tu­al free­dom”.27

Gustave Courbet: The Meeting, 1854. Source: Musee Fabre, Montpellier, France.

Gustave Courbet: The Meeting, 1854. Source: Musee Fabre, Montpellier, France.

The bohemi­an fig­ure of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, which was typ­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of social free­dom, became uproot­ed and pop­u­larised by authors such as Baude­laire, in The Painter of Mod­ern Life. As an alter­na­tive lifestyle to that which was imposed by the Civ­il Code and abid­ed by in main­stream soci­ety, the bohemi­an fig­ure became over­worked in writ­ings, paint­ings and poems. The so-called art of liv­ing”28 was heav­i­ly roman­ti­cised. Notions of free­dom in poverty—which ironically—were only afford­ed by those with access to prop­er­ty or inher­it­ed mon­ey from fam­i­ly, were gross­ly mis­un­der­stood. In fact, the image of the bohemi­an as mar­gin­al” and their alleged dereg­u­la­tion” became a way of draw­ing stronger dif­fer­ences between social groups in terms of gen­der, class and race. We might there­fore con­sid­er the bohemi­an artist as a prod­uct of the state and cap­i­tal. Today, the bohemi­an lifestyle has become high­ly stylised, man­i­cured and stan­dard­ised, to such an extent that it is one of the most prof­itable forms of exis­tence for the real estate mar­ket and cor­po­ra­tions. An exis­tence whose sup­posed sim­plic­i­ty is exploit­ed through the present-day ide­al­i­sa­tion of reduced liv­ing, rentable work­ing spaces and min­i­mal infrastructures.

Charles Desavary, Camille Corot painting outdoors in Saint-Nicolas-les-Arras, before 1875. Source: Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (muséed’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.

Charles Desavary, Camille Corot painting outdoors in Saint-Nicolas-les-Arras, before 1875. Source: Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (muséed’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.

II. Landscape

The pro­lif­er­a­tion of the bohemi­an artist fig­ure may be under­stood through the tech­no­log­i­cal, social and polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions that col­lapsed the home and stu­dio into one space. As afore­men­tioned, this essay will focus on two instances: the prac­tices of the plein air artists and the case of Rosa Bon­heur to elab­o­rate on the con­fla­tion of the home and stu­dio. The plein air artists char­ac­terised the mod­ern free artist and accord­ing to Baude­laire, a man of the crowd”. In search of lib­er­a­tion, plein air artists moved from paint­ing inside the stu­dio, to paint­ing in the open air. This tran­si­tion not only depart­ed from the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Paint­ing and Sculp­ture, the salons, and tra­di­tion­al artis­tic prac­tices, but from the very space of the stu­dio itself. An extreme exam­ple of this shift was the Bar­bi­zon mem­bers, a group of artists who decid­ed to leave the city alto­geth­er and go to the for­est of Fontainebleau. The plein air artist intro­duced the pos­si­bil­i­ty to prac­tice art any­where, with­out the need of a phys­i­cal build­ing and/or fixed loca­tion. For Bon­heur how­ev­er, an almost oppo­site con­di­tion was endured, where the need for a stu­dio was fun­da­men­tal for her devel­op­ment as an artist, despite her prac­tic­ing at the same time as the Bar­bi­zon members. 

Winsor & Newton, The History of The Artist’s Colour Tube, 1911. Source: Winsor & Newton.

Winsor & Newton, The History of The Artist’s Colour Tube, 1911. Source: Winsor & Newton.

The wan­der­ing exis­tence of the plein air artist should be con­sid­ered along­side the indus­tri­al tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments that occurred around the same time. Just as the avail­abil­i­ty of pub­lic trans­port rapid­ly increased and facil­i­tat­ed the move­ment of the gen­er­al pub­lic from the city else­where, the inte­gra­tion and stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of artis­tic equip­ment accel­er­at­ed the artist’s atom­i­sa­tion. Col­lapsi­ble paint tubes became read­i­ly avail­able, as well as pre­s­e­lect­ed colours that were set into a portable wood­en suit­case. These engi­neered tools eased the prac­tice of paint­ing and enhanced its flex­i­bil­i­ty. The appear­ance of these instru­ments soon appeared in rep­re­sen­ta­tions of plein air artists in paint­ings and pho­tographs; some of whom were depict­ed in the land­scape as pil­grims in search of the per­fect scene, light and weath­er to paint. As described by Kim­ber­ly Jones when talk­ing about the Bar­bi­zon mem­bers, the for­est oper­at­ed as a lab­o­ra­to­ry in which they exam­ined the sub­tle shifts in time of day, sea­son, and atmos­pher­ic change with an almost sci­en­tif­ic rigour.”29 In the paint­ing by Gus­tave Courbet, titled The Meet­ing”, the artist is car­ry­ing his tools in a box he has attached to his back [ 1 ].30 Whilst in the pho­tographs of Jean-Bap­tiste-Camille Corot, we see the artist sit­ting on a fold­able stool in the land­scape with a light­weight fold­able easel, a box con­tain­ing paints and his para­sol. Images such as these illus­trate the mod­erni­sa­tion of artists’ tools and the ways in which this equip­ment enabled nomadic artis­tic prac­tice [ 2 ]. The image of the artist was now uproot­ed from the idea of the stu­dio and that of domes­tic­i­ty, towards a remote exis­tence with­in the land­scape and the actu­al site of their sub­ject. This way of life pre­sent­ed a rad­i­cal idea in a moment where the indi­vid­ual was oth­er­wise under­stood as sub­or­di­nate to fam­i­ly and pri­vate property. 

Stradanus, Johannes Galle, Phillips, Painter’s workshop, circa 1580-1605. Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Stradanus, Johannes Galle, Phillips, Painter’s workshop, circa 1580-1605. Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Honoré Daumier, Paysagistes au travail, 1862. Source: BnF, Estampes et Photographie, Rés. Dc-180b (69)-Fol.

Honoré Daumier, Paysagistes au travail, 1862. Source: BnF, Estampes et Photographie, Rés. Dc-180b (69)-Fol.

The plein air artist and the tech­nolo­gies devel­oped around their prac­tice symp­to­mati­cal­ly increased the pop­u­lar­i­ty and acces­si­bil­i­ty of artis­tic prac­tice [ 3 ]. The artist’s no longer relied on work­shop assis­tance and the for­mer need of sev­er­al artisan’s knowl­edge, time and labour to pre­pare the colours being used in a giv­en paint­ing [ 4 ], was all reduced into a sin­gle com­pact suit­case. The reduc­tion of equip­ment into a portable tool that could be used by any indi­vid­ual any­where, increased inter­est in artis­tic prac­tice and thus gave rise to the ama­teur artist [ 5 ]. As cel­e­brat­ed by Baude­laire in the case of Mon­sieur Con­stan­tine Guys, who dis­cov­ered unaid­ed all the lit­tle tricks of the trade, and who has taught him­self, with­out help or advice, has become a pow­er­ful mas­ter in his own way […]”.31 Artists no longer required tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, nor did they need a stu­dio in which to prac­tice. The rise of the plein air artists and the symp­to­matic auton­o­my of the artist as a result, facil­i­tat­ed the col­lapse of the stu­dio, not only into the land­scape, but into domesticity.

III. Room

In con­trast to the plein air artists, the expec­ta­tions of Bon­heur were sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent. Bon­heur was not only an artist, but a woman. This meant that she was auto­mat­i­cal­ly bound by a set of rules accord­ing to her gen­der. Pri­or to the abo­li­tion of the guilds and the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Paint­ing and Sculp­ture in 1791, a max­i­mum of four women would have been per­mit­ted aca­d­e­m­ic mem­ber­ship. Vignee-Lebrun was one of those four—yet, as Grisel­da Pol­lock and Rozin­ka Park­er explained—when the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Paint­ing and Sculp­ture was refound­ed as the Insti­tute des Arts, both artists were exclud­ed for most of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.32 Fol­low­ing these events, the cir­cum­stances and oppor­tu­ni­ties for women who want­ed to prac­tice art deteriorated.

Since the foun­da­tion of the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Art and Paint­ing in 1648 in France, women were for­bid­den to prac­tice life draw­ing from live nudes, despite this hav­ing been a pre­req­ui­site and basis for aca­d­e­m­ic train­ing.33 It is impor­tant to note that we are observ­ing a spe­cif­ic type of woman, one of the few who may have had the pos­si­bil­i­ty and priv­i­lege to access art. We must there­fore not over­look the real­i­ty that only the aris­toc­ra­cy or bour­geoisie, as the wives and daugh­ters of male artists, were able to prac­tice art. As point­ed out by Lin­da Nochlin, one of the most com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics amongst female artists who man­aged to suc­ceed, albeit with­in the para­me­ters allowed for their gen­der, tend­ed to be the daugh­ters of artists (their father) or women who may have had a close con­nec­tion with a suc­cess­ful male per­son­al­i­ty.34 There­fore, it was only a small num­ber of women in spe­cif­ic posi­tions who were able to prac­tice art, and even then, they endured restrict­ed modes of working.

As the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Paint­ing and Sculp­ture only per­mit­ted a max­i­mum num­ber of four women at a time,35 there are a lim­it­ed num­ber of female artists known to have prac­ticed before the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Of those women, the major­i­ty were self-taught mid­dle-class white women, much like Kauff­mann or Vignee-Lebrun. Upper to mid­dle class female artists were not only mar­gin­alised in terms of their train­ing; they were also expect­ed to pro­duce a type of paint­ing that reflect­ed their female nature.” Name­ly, sweet, grace­ful, delight­ful, charm­ing and mod­est” pieces. 36 In some cas­es, women had to manip­u­late the brush­stroke to empha­sise gen­der dif­fer­ences”.37

Bonheur’s Studio in The Rue Rumford. Drawing based on a Floor Plan, published in the Book Rosa Bonheur Reminiscences, 2020. Source: Drawing by Author.

Bonheur’s Studio in The Rue Rumford. Drawing based on a Floor Plan, published in the Book Rosa Bonheur Reminiscences, 2020. Source: Drawing by Author.

Accord­ing­ly, Bon­heur was the daugh­ter of a social­ist painter of por­traits and land­scapes, Ray­mond Bon­heur and Sophie Mar­quis, a musi­cian. Bon­heur had three broth­ers and sis­ters, all of whom were edu­cat­ed on the tech­ni­cal ground­ings of paint­ing by their father and lat­er on, by Bon­heur. Though it no longer exists, the arrange­ment of the first stu­dio they had togeth­er in Paris can be seen in a plan indi­cat­ing how the space was organ­ised and the areas where each of the chil­dren were set to paint. Bon­heur was posi­tioned next to her father, whilst her sib­lings worked on the oth­er side of the room [ 6 ]. The prox­im­i­ty of the family’s stu­dio to the Lou­vre meant that Bon­heur could reg­u­lar­ly go to the Lou­vre to copy paintings. 

Whilst female artists were not allowed to paint human nudes, ani­mals were deemed as accept­able sub­jects. In respect to this, pre­vi­ous obser­va­tions have described Bonheur’s fas­ci­na­tion with ani­mals and her fre­quent vis­its to abat­toirs to paint the ani­mals there. The paint­ing of ani­mals; a trend first intro­duced by the prac­tices of plein air painters, there­by became a grow­ing trend amongst female artists. How­ev­er, mid­dle-class women in Paris typ­i­cal­ly weren’t allowed to go out­side with­out a chap­er­one. This meant that vis­it­ing abat­toirs, as well as the over­all prac­tices of the plein air artists, was ulti­mate­ly defined as an exclu­sive­ly mas­cu­line ter­ri­to­ry.”38

L’Illustration, Rosa Bonehur’s Studio, 1852. Source: engraving from: L’Illustration, 1 May 1852, 284, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek.

L’Illustration, Rosa Bonehur’s Studio, 1852. Source: engraving from: L’Illustration, 1 May 1852, 284, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek.

As a young girl, Bon­heur owned ani­mals such as sheep and goats, all of whom were kept on the bal­cony of her family’s apart­ment.39 When she moved into her first stu­dio on Rue de L’Ouest near Lux­em­bourg Gar­dens, her ani­mals occu­pied a sig­nif­i­cant amount of space, as shown in an engrav­ing pub­lished in the mag­a­zine L’illustration. The fore­ground of this draw­ing is com­posed of a series of sta­bles, ken­nels and cages con­tain­ing hors­es, rab­bits and dogs. Then, in the back­ground of the image, we can see what was like­ly to have been the paint­ing area of Bonheur’s stu­dio [ 7 ]. The artists’ final stu­dio, the one that she owned once she had estab­lished her­self pro­fes­sion­al­ly, was locat­ed in Fointainbleu’s for­est. Here, she kept about forty ani­mals; name­ly sheep, goats, hors­es, lions, oxen and mules.40 In this par­tic­u­lar case, the studio—and the interior—played a fun­da­men­tal role in the devel­op­ment of Bonheur’s life and prac­tice, where she must have spent most of her time despite her pref­er­ence of the outdoors.

Whilst the gen­er­al public’s grow­ing inter­est in nat­u­ral­ism encour­aged her suc­cess­es, Bonheur’s paint­ings were lim­it­ed in their sub­ject mat­ter when com­pared with the work of her male coun­ter­parts. In par­tic­u­lar, unlike the paint­ings of Mil­let or Courbet41, Bonheur’s work did not engage with pol­i­tics. As Boime explained, despite Bon­heur hav­ing defied the most rigid social cos­tumes in West­ern soci­ety”,42 her polit­i­cal views remained rather con­ser­v­a­tive. Con­trary to the Bar­bi­zon mem­bers, who reject­ed the salons at the begin­ning of their careers, Bon­heur was active­ly engaged in them through­out her life. This was the case for the major­i­ty of artists who could not afford to rebel against the salons, because The salon was an aid not only to glo­ry but sur­vival”,43 in the words of Ben­jamin Con­stant. For many includ­ing Bon­heur, the salons were the only place for artists to exhib­it their work, estab­lish a rep­u­ta­tion and poten­tial­ly build busi­ness relations. 

How­ev­er, in the con­text of the salon, Bonheur’s work was first and fore­most cri­tiqued on the basis of her gen­der. In so much that the posi­tion of the female artist was ulti­mate­ly a sub­mis­sive one. A fig­ure to be shaped and dom­i­nat­ed by men and as such, a female artist could only expect her work to be judged and/or cel­e­brat­ed under engen­dered terms con­struct­ed by men. As a result, Bon­heur was con­tin­u­al­ly ques­tioned around her role as a woman; For as a mem­ber of the female sex, an artist was sub­ject to the con­straints bour­geoise soci­ety was increas­ing­ly plac­ing on women’s activ­i­ties and move­ments”.44 Bon­heur pre­sent­ed a rad­i­cal and alter­na­tive exam­ple of a woman who delib­er­ate­ly chose not to mar­ry a man nor have any chil­dren. She lived with her part­ner Nathalie Micas until she died and then lat­er Anna Klump­ke. Despite the con­tro­ver­sy, Nathalie assumed the role of the devot­ed wife and man­aged their domes­tic affairs to free Rosa for her pro­fes­sion­al activ­i­ties.”45

In addi­tion to her uncon­ven­tion­al lifestyle and suc­cess as an artist, Bon­heur was a con­stant sub­ject to gos­sip because she dressed like a man.” When on-site copy­ing ani­mals, Bon­heur tend­ed to wear trousers and dis­guise her­self as a man to avoid being dis­turbed by men. 46 Not to men­tion that men’s cloth­ing would have like­ly been more prac­ti­cal and far more com­fort­able for work­ing out­doors, sug­gest­ing that this choice may have been more so nec­es­sary for Bonheur’s prac­tice than a cho­sen pref­er­ence. In soci­ety, a woman wear­ing trousers was gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered to be cor­rupt and usurp­ing mas­cu­line iden­ti­ty” and so, this act was for­bid­den. An ordi­nance issued on the 7th Novem­ber dur­ing 1800 stat­ed that, if a woman want­ed to wear trousers, she had to apply to the Pre­fec­ture de police for a per­mit.”47 These per­mits were issued by the police and were only valid for six to three months and only dur­ing car­ni­val sea­son would cross-dress­ing with­out one be tol­er­at­ed.”48 In this respect, the con­ven­tions of men’s and women’s cloth­ing were force­ful­ly employed as a fur­ther means to sep­a­rate their gen­der, class and race.49

Nicaise de Keyser, Schools of the 19th Century, 1878 Source: Museum of Fine Arts of Nice.

Nicaise de Keyser, Schools of the 19th Century, 1878 Source: Museum of Fine Arts of Nice.

While Bonheur’s pref­er­ence for wear­ing clothes that were clas­si­fied as male may have only been due to prac­ti­cal rea­sons, pre­vi­ous obser­va­tions have sug­gest­ed that Bon­heur endured a strug­gle with her fem­i­nin­i­ty and endeav­oured to sep­a­rate her gen­der from her­self as an indi­vid­ual and artis­tic out­put. Brid­get Alsdorf’s essay, Paint­ing the Femme Paintre, explains that when being paint­ed, Bon­heur pre­ferred to have her por­trait paint­ed by a woman, per­haps an eye more sym­pa­thet­ic to her posi­tion than a man’s. When she was por­trayed as an artist or as part of a group of male artists, Bon­heur was inten­tion­al­ly made to look like a man. This is per­haps most obvi­ous in Nicaise de Keyser’s por­trait, titled Great Artist’s of The Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry French School (1878) [ 8 ]. Here, Bon­heur is depict­ed in the front row but is almost indis­tin­guish­able from her fel­low painters.50 Beyond her uncon­ven­tion­al appear­ance, Bon­heur received atten­tion for the mas­cu­line qual­i­ties found in her sub­ject mat­ter and qual­i­ty of paint­ing. While Bon­heur ben­e­fit­ted from this in her pro­fes­sion, she was ulti­mate­ly praised under a male gaze and cel­e­brat­ed for her mas­culin­i­ty, rather than her femininity.

Claude Oscar Monet, A Corner of the Studio, Before 1861. Source: Musee d’Orsay.

Claude Oscar Monet, A Corner of the Studio, Before 1861. Source: Musee d’Orsay.

Claude Oscar Monet, The Studio Boat, Before 1876. Source: Barnes Foundation

Claude Oscar Monet, The Studio Boat, Before 1876. Source: Barnes Foundation

IV. Line

Dur­ing the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, artists start­ed to use their plein air tools indoors. Claude Monet’s paint­ing, Cor­ner of a Stu­dio dat­ed 1861 is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of this para­dox. In the paint­ing, we see what looks like the cor­ner of a bour­geoise liv­ing room, where a plein air tool­box appears to have been left open and unat­tend­ed on a cab­i­net [ 9 ].51 In this paint­ing, the tool­box; as opposed to the room seems to rep­re­sent the stu­dio. Or rather, the stu­dio as we know it, has been reduced to the artist’s equip­ment. The artist’s tools set against a bour­geoise liv­ing room there­by presents a jux­ta­pos­ing iconog­ra­phy and imple­ments an idea of liv­ing and work­ing that is flex­i­ble. This con­di­tion con­tin­ues to be rein­forced in the var­i­ous paint­ings pro­duced by Claude Mon­et in his studio/boat; a row­ing boat con­vert­ed into a float­ing stu­dio with the addi­tion of a cab­in and striped awning.52 Paint­ings such as the Riv­er Scene (1876) and The Stu­dio Boat (1874, 1876) were paint­ed on-site and from a trans­portable exter­nalised stu­dio and hence rein­force the idea that art need no longer be con­fined to a room. [ 10 ].

The portable box­es of the Plein Air artist move­ment, became par­tic­u­lar­ly appeal­ing to female artists who had to alter­nate between their domes­tic lives and their art­work. Anthea Callen explains that in their adver­tis­ing, com­pa­nies such as Wind­sor and New­ton were not tar­get­ing artists, but ama­teurs and more specif­i­cal­ly, ama­teur lady painters”53 due of the clean­li­ness and lack of smell”. This offered such com­pa­nies the oppor­tu­ni­ty to expand their mar­ket audi­ence. The entrench­ment of this new way of work­ing became so wide­spread that the involve­ment of the real estate mar­ket was inevitable and even­tu­al­ly lead to a form of archi­tec­ture that seemed to favour the flex­i­ble and lib­er­at­ed work­ing modes of the ama­teur artist. How­ev­er, in stark con­trast to their cus­tomers, these cor­po­ra­tions were high­ly mea­sured, man­aged and standardised. 

The col­lapse of the home into the stu­dio and vice ver­sa, is arguably part of a process by which the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of pover­ty inevitably left the artist dis­pos­sessed of a place to live and/or work. Marx, Hardt and Negri explain how, cap­i­tal con­stant­ly oper­ates through a recon­fig­u­ra­tion of the bound­aries of the inside and the out­side”,54 and that it does not func­tion with­in the con­fines of a fixed ter­ri­to­ry and pop­u­la­tion, but always over­flows its bor­ders and inter­nalis­es new spaces.”55 This is par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant here in order to under­stand how and why the mar­keti­sa­tion of the bohemi­an artist became so prof­itable. In real estate terms, this was an essen­tial part of form­ing the ambi­gu­i­ty pre­sent­ed in the type of spaces artists used for liv­ing and work­ing and for the first time, we find the neces­si­ty of flex­i­bil­i­ty as a para­me­ter for liv­ing; one that is defined and reduced into some­thing that can be repli­cat­ed and exploit­ed by the cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket. The increased demand for a new type of space that favoured the flex­i­bil­i­ty of the artist and their sup­posed abil­i­ty to work in any con­di­tion, extend­ed the artist’s already pre­car­i­ous form of exis­tence by exas­per­at­ing the poten­tial of every­thing (and noth­ing) to be con­sid­ered a stu­dio and a home.

The stu­dio, room and land­scape was ide­alised through the notion of the inde­pen­dent genius” and as such, became com­mod­i­fied and prof­itable. This seemed to strength­en the very dif­fer­ences some artists were fight­ing to oppose. In fact, the very notion of genius that was con­cep­tu­alised in the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Paint­ing and Sculp­ture was sus­tained around acts of sep­a­ra­tion rather than the inte­gra­tion of the artist in soci­ety. In oth­er words, if social dif­fer­ences had not exist­ed, the inde­pen­dent genius would not be so char­ac­ter­is­tic today. The sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of the artist that became so pop­u­lar dur­ing the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies served to rein­force social dif­fer­ences as well as social groups and classes. 

Be that as it may, Bon­heur remained out­side of these typ­i­cal polar­i­sa­tions and was caught between two sub­jec­tiv­i­ties at once: that of being women and an artist. Where­by, adher­ing to one would have result­ed in the com­pro­mise of the oth­er. This con­di­tion is clear­ly illus­trat­ed by the pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned group por­trait by Keyser. Here, Bonheur’s sub­jec­tiv­i­ty as part of a group of artists, or rather, great (male) artists” was only pos­si­ble through her male char­ac­ter­is­tics. From society’s per­spec­tive, any female trait ques­tioned Bonheur’s genius” or iden­ti­ty as an artist; risk­ing the val­ue of her work. Equal­ly, Bonheur’s fem­i­nin­i­ty was like­ly to have been con­di­tioned by her indi­vid­u­al­ism as an artist and her lifestyle choic­es. Both of which opposed mid­dle class fam­i­ly struc­tures and the tra­di­tion­al role of women with­in them. How­ev­er, Bon­heur was high­ly con­scious not only of her own strug­gle, but of what her strug­gle may rep­re­sent to women and to the art pro­fes­sion as a whole. This is proven in her delib­er­ate request to only be rep­re­sent­ed by women in her por­trait or biog­ra­phy. In a con­ver­sa­tion between Bon­heur and Anna Klump­ke, the author of the artist’s biog­ra­phy, Klump­ke recites, My fem­i­nism and my clothes aren’t meant to sur­prise you. It will be easy for you to explain the rea­sons behind them”56. In this sense, Bon­heur stood on the line between her pre­scribed char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions and one might then argue that it is in this posi­tion where she found her true resistance.

  1. 1

    Offi­cialy the Civ­il Code of the French that was estab­lished under the French Con­sulate in 1804.

  2. 2

    Michel Fou­cault, Pow­er: The Essen­tial Works of Michel Fou­cault 1954–1984, vol. 3, ed. James D. Faubion (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 2002), 352.

  3. 3

    Andrew Roberts, Napoleon The Great (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 2015), 275.

  4. 4


  5. 5


  6. 6


  7. 7


  8. 8

    Michel Fou­cault, Pow­er: The Essen­tial Works of Michel Fou­cault 1954–1984, vol. 3, ed. James D. Faubion (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 2002), 352.

  9. 9

    Ibid., 338.

  10. 10

    From 1794 onward, through 1803, 1816, and con­tin­u­ing through the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, this line between pub­lic and pri­vate, men and women, pol­i­tics and fam­i­ly, became more rigid­ly drawn.” Lynn Hunt, The Unsta­ble Bound­aries of the French Rev­o­lu­tion,” in A His­to­ry of Pri­vate Life: From the Fires of Rev­o­lu­tion to the Great War, vol. 4 (Cam­bridge, Mass.: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1987), 45.

  11. 11

    Ibid., 13.

  12. 12

    Car­bon­nier, The French Civ­il Code,” 342.

  13. 13

    Michael Hardt and Anto­nio Negri, Empire (Cam­bridge, Mass.: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2001), 104.

  14. 14


  15. 15

    Michelle Per­rot, The Fam­i­ly Tri­umphant,” in A His­to­ry of Pri­vate Life: From the Fires of Rev­o­lu­tion to the Great War, vol. 4 (Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1987), 100.

  16. 16

    Michelle Per­rot, Intro­duc­tion,” in A His­to­ry of Pri­vate Life: From the Fires of Rev­o­lu­tion to the Great War, vol. 4 (Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1987), 97.

  17. 17

    This year both the guilds and the Roy­al Acad­e­mies would be abolished.

  18. 18

    Sarah Maza, The Myth of the French Bour­geoisie: An Essay on the Social Imag­i­nary, 1750–1850 (Cam­bridge, Mass.: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005), 161.

  19. 19

    Arnold Hauser, A Social His­to­ry of Art, Nat­u­ral­ism, Impres­sion­ism, The film Age, vol. 4 (Lon­don and New York: Rout­ledge, 1999), 2.

  20. 20

    Maza, Myth, 162.

  21. 21

    David Beech, Art and Post­cap­i­tal­ism: Aes­thet­ic Labour, Automa­tion and Val­ue Pro­duc­tion (Lon­don: Plu­to Press, 2019), 42.

  22. 22

    Ibid., 38.

  23. 23

    Mey­er Schapiro, Diderot on The Artist and Soci­ety,” in The­o­ry and Phi­los­o­phy of Art: Style, Artists and Soci­ety (New York: George Braziller Inc, 1998), 201.

  24. 24

    Ibid., 204.

  25. 25

    Ibid., 207.

  26. 26


  27. 27


  28. 28

    In his Book The Rules of Art, Bour­dieu talks about The Art of Liv­ing” as a con­di­tion that defies clas­si­fi­ca­tion. He talks about this term in rela­tion to the notion of the bohemi­an artist. Pierre Bour­dieu, The Rules of Art: Gen­e­sis and Struc­ture of the Lit­er­ary Field (Cam­bridge: Poli­ty, 1996), 54–57.

  29. 29

    Kim­ber­ly Jones, Land­scapes, Leg­ends, Sou­venirs, Fan­tasies: The for­est of Fontainebleau in the Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry,” in In The For­est of Fontainebleau, Painter and Pho­tog­ra­phers from Corot to Mon­et, 12.

  30. 30

    Per­haps The Meet­ing, should be seen in rela­tion to The Artist’s Stu­dio, a real alle­go­ry sum­ming up sev­en years of my artis­tic and moral life (1854−55). Here, the stu­dio we see has noth­ing but spec­ta­tors watch­ing the artist paint, who has cho­sen not to make the por­traits of any of the sub­jects present in the room. The mod­el, who rep­re­sents aca­d­e­m­ic train­ing in this instance, is stand­ing right behind the artist. Rather than pos­ing for the paint­ing, the mod­el is watch­ing him too. Despite being con­fined inside an inte­ri­or the artist iden­ti­fies as his stu­dio, the artist is paint­ing a land­scape. A paint­ing that he appears to be draw­ing from mem­o­ry, per­haps from his out­ings as a pil­grim in the landscape.

  31. 31

    Charles Baude­laire, The Painter of Mod­ern Life (Pen­guin Clas­sics, 2010), 8.

  32. 32

    Rozsi­ka Park­er and Grisel­da Pol­lock, Old Mis­tress­es: Women, Art and Ide­ol­o­gy (Lon­don: I.B. Tau­ris, 2013), 33.

  33. 33

    Whit­ney Chad­wick, Women, Art and Soci­ety (New York: Thames & Hud­son Ltd, 2020), 7.

  34. 34

    Lin­da Nochlin, Women, Art, And Pow­er And Oth­er Essays (NY: West­view Press, 1989), 168.

  35. 35

    Chris­t­ian Michel, The Acad­e­mie Royale de Pein­ture et de Sculp­ture – The Birth of the French School, 1648–1793 (Los Ange­les: Get­ty Pub­li­ca­tions, 2018), 123.

  36. 36

    Chad­wick, Women, Art and Soci­ety, 168.

  37. 37


  38. 38

    Anthea Callen, The Work of Art: Plein Air Paint­ing and Artis­tic Iden­ti­ty in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry France (Reak­tion Books, 2016), 12.

  39. 39

    Albert Boime, The Case of Rosa Bon­heur: Why Should a Woman Want to Be More Like a Man?” Art His­to­ry 4 (4) (1981): 393.

  40. 40

    Ibid., 392.

  41. 41

    Ibid., 390.

  42. 42

    Ibid., 386.

  43. 43

    J. Mil­ner, The Stu­dios of Paris: Cap­i­tal of Art in the Late Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry (New Haven and Lon­don: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1988), 46.

  44. 44

    Grisel­da Pol­lock, Dif­fer­enc­ing the Canon: Fem­i­nism and the Writ­ing of Arts His­to­ries (Lon­don and New York: Rout­ledge, 1999), 37.

  45. 45

    Boime, Case,” 386.

  46. 46

    Some­what iron­i­cal­ly, Bon­heur was once stopped by the police because they thought she was a man dressed like a woman, accord­ing to: Boime, Case,” 392.

  47. 47

    Cather­ine Hewitt, Art is a Tyrant (Lon­don: Icon Books, 2020), 129.

  48. 48

    Ibid., 130.

  49. 49

    See: Mar­i­ana Valverde, The Love of Fin­ery: Fash­ion and the Fall­en Woman in Nine­teenth- Cen­tu­ry Social Dis­course,” Vic­to­ri­an Stud­ies 32, no. 2 (1989): 169–88.

  50. 50

    The exclu­sion of female artists from group por­traits was in fact very com­mon amongst painters. Homage to Delacroix: Cordier, Durany, Ler­gos, Fan­tin-Latour, Whistler, Champfleury, Manet, Brac­que­mond, Baude­laire, A. De Balleroy (1864) those by Hen­ri Fatin-Latour who despite being mar­ried to the artist Vic­to­ria Dubourg, did not include her in the paint­ing. See: M. Lau­rence and P. Willis, Women Artists in Paris, 1850–1900 (New Haven: Yale U.P., 2017), 27.

  51. 51

    Callen, Work, 75.

  52. 52

    F. Davis, Talk­ing About Sales Rooms: Nos­tal­gia in Green and gold,” Coun­try Life (Archive: 1901–2005), 169 (4363), 1981, 870–871.

  53. 53

    Callen, Work, 72.

  54. 54

    Hardt and Negri, Empire, 222.

  55. 55


  56. 56

    A. Klumpe, Rosa Bon­heur: The Artist (Auto)biography (Ann Arbor: Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Press 1987), 79.

I would like to give my spe­cial thanks to Emi­ly Priest for her close read­ing and sug­ges­tions for this essay.


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