Daughter of the painter, Raymond Bonheur, and sister of Isidore, Rosalie (called Rosa) was born in Bordeaux, but moved with the family to Paris in her early youth. Her father was a landscape artist but, as he was not particularly successful, he decided against an artistic career for his elder daughter. He apprenticed Rosa to a seamstress, but she had neither the temperament nor the aptitude for this work. She eventually persuaded her father into allowing her to study art and attended his drawing classes, as well as studying further with the painter Leon Cogniet.
Rosa Bonheur is included in the animalier school of sculptors on the strength of under a dozen works, mostly modelled prior to 1845, when she won the Gold Medal for painting at the Salon. As well as winning the medal (also a Sevres vase) she received an important commission from the State, and her celebrated career as a painter began. The admiration for her work and the esteem in which she was held was phenomenal for a woman in the nineteenth century. The 'Landseer' of France, she received decorations and awards, and was on personal terms with the Crown and officials of State; her home was protected by the army during the siege of Paris under orders from Prince Frederick. In England, too, she enjoyed the friendship of Queen Victoria and other noble patrons.
Rosa's success lay in her 'natural' portrayals of animals. Where possible she worked directly from nature, travelling to the Pyrenees and the Scottish Highlands, also spending much time in the country surrounding Paris and in its slaughterhouses. On these local excursions, in order to study undisturbed, she adopted men's clothing - not the 'glamour-girl' variety of her contemporary and friend Georges Sand, the great advocate of female emancipation, but the beret, baggy trousers and blouse of the Breton countryside. In spite of this eccentric garb, which later became her normal wear, and other unconventional conduct, she was a respected and notable person, attracting clients of importance, interest and talent through her own admiration for the arts and through her strength of character and personality. Whether her eccentricity was studied or genuine, it did not go unnoticed and may well have been instrumental in her success. She established a career for herself as a professional painter, not a talented amateur, a considerable achievement for a woman at that time. One nevertheless wonders whether an eye-brow would be raised or not today at her absorption with the slaughterhouse; the strange choice of a goat as an apartment pet; or such bizarre behaviour as driving a cab from Fontainbleau station, dressed up as a priest and wearing the ceremonial Legion of Honour sash, whilst inside the vehicle was the renowned English painter, Sir John Millais. Amongst the English, there was the Queen, and Rosa's other notable patrons to be considered, and one imagines that her visits here were a serious matter and that eccentricity was kept in check.
Rosa Bonheur's work was understandably very popular in Victorian England, a country she visited on numerous occasions. In 1853 she went to the Highlands of Scotland, a visit arranged by Monsieur Gambart, the print publisher, who had a good nose for business and wanted paintings 'a la Landseer' from Rosa. He was probably well rewarded, as her admiration for Landseer's work, and the Scottish setting generally, had a profound influence on her work. Rosa Bonheur certainly did meet Landseer, but whether on this visit or later is not known. In a letter of 1856 she writes that 'he is the greatest painter of animals and I believe that he will remain the greatest of his kind', with more about the poetic grandeur and rare intelligence of Landseer's work. This Rosa - Landseer harmony had decided influence through Rosa on the animalier school, and on the sculptor Mene particularly, as well as having an interesting sequel. There was an improbably, but very credulous, rumour circulating that Landseer intended to marry her. When tackled by the painter Frith about it, he declared it a good idea, but that was all. It would certainly have been a splendid commercial partnership, with an output of paintings, one or two of which reached the £10,000 bracket, from two of the most popular artists of the day.
This extraneous detail, gathered from the considerable biographical information available about this artist, would perhaps be irrelevant if a conclusion could not be reached quite simply, that the originality and individuality so strongly marked in Rosa Bonheur as a person has somehow by-passed her art. She was a superb draughtsman, nevertheless, and the worth of her sculpture lies in its basic realism - not 'humanised'; her pictorial portrayal of the animal is absolutely as it exists in nature