Isidore Jules Bonheur was born on May 15th in Bordeaux to an extraordinarily artistic family; his mother a music teacher and his father, Raymond, a painter and drawing-master. Bonheur's older sister, Rosa, perhaps the more famous of the two siblings, attracted considerable acclaim during her lifetime for the naturalism and realism of her animal paintings and, to a lesser extent, her sculpture. Bonheur exhibited great artistic aptitude from an early age and was tutored in drawing and painting by his father. In 1849, at the age of 22, he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but had, in fact, already made his debut at the Salon of 1848. Bonheur's initial foray into the art world was through the medium of painting. His debut entry was of a painting entitled "African Horseman Attacked by a Lion" as well as a plaster model of the same subject. "Pepin le Bref dans l'arene" exhibited at the Salon of 1874 is Bonheur's only painting regarded as possessing any merit. Whilst he regularly exhibited at the Salon, he began to exhibit both paintings and bronzes at the Royal Academy in London and eventually won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1889.
As a painter, Bonheur's public appeal was extremely limited. It is not known when or if he gave up painting altogether but his popularity and success increased tremendously when he turned his hand to animalier sculpture. Sheep and cattle became the main subjects of Bonheur's bronzes, obviously influenced by his sister Rosa's own affection and masterful representations of these animals. In fact, several of his works were modelled as a complement to the figures Rosa had sculpted - his "Merino Ram" and cows were paired with her "Ewe" and bulls. Bonheur's fascination with cattle and his ability to capture, not only these animals essence and character but also their anatomical correctness was superbly demonstrated in his model of a "Normandy Cow". Authorities of this breed have used Bonheur's model as a guide to deduce that the breed has changed little over the last century. Two superb models of "Bulls", exhibited in plaster at the Salon of 1865, were commissioned, on a monumental scale, for the palace of the Sultan of Constantinople. Unfortunately, due to the Sultan's untimely demise these models were never delivered. Bonheur's small animal sculptures were cast by his brother-in-law, Hippolyte Peyrol, one of the premier founders of the time.
Whilst Bonheur proved his capability in capturing the placid attitude of cows and the aggressive restlessness of bulls, he was equally adept at modelling sheep, dogs and later in his career, equestrian figures. Animalier sculptures were extremely popular in Britain in the 1870's, with a special emphasis on horse bronzes and like other contemporaries of his, Bonheur was quick to cater to this appreciative market. Whilst criticism was levied against these sculptors for pandering to the English, and in some cases American, market by their more classically inspired French counterparts; Bonheurs' sculptures from this period proved that marketability did not necessarily lead to a diminution in quality or expression.
During this period Bonheur produced fine equestrian models of the "Prince of Wales", a pair of "Carriage Horses with a Postillion", a "Mare and Foal", a "Horse and Jockey", and a "Horse and Groom". As an offshoot of the popularity of his equestrian models, Bonheur also began sculpting a number of hunting groups which also appealed to the British aristocracy. Some of these models included a hound leaping on to a boar, a bronze of a setter entitled "Cora" and figures of dogs with cattle or sheep. Bonheur's bronze of a eight-point Stag is reminiscent of Landseer's Monarch of the Glen, and his model of a "Stag at Bay" is also a splendid example from his hunting milieu.
Bonheur's sculptures, popular during his lifetime, remain highly collectable today. In fact, while he is best remembered for his small animal groups two of his monumental sculptures can still be seen today. One of these, a tribute to his sister Rosa, stands at Fontainebleau, France and the other, two stone lions grace the steps of the Palais de Justice in Paris.