Monday, May 25, 2009

Let the paint dry

Rosa Bonheur, the most famous of 19th century women painters, died 110 years ago today. Remembered in particular for her paintings of animals, her renown today also stems for what, in retrospect, seems like lesbian tendencies - not marrying, dressing as a man and living with female companions. The last of her companions was a young American artist, Anna Klumpke, who kept a diary and used it for a biography of her mentor.

Rosa Bonheur was born into a cultured Bordeaux family in 1822. Her father was an artist; her mother, who died young, was a piano teacher; and several of her siblings were to become painters or sculptors. She seems to have been an unruly child, never happy in school, but became very focused on painting in her early teens. She was also interested in animals from a young age, and later studied anatomy, visited abattoirs, and even performed dissections.

Her first big success came with Ploughing in the Nivernais, exhibited in 1849. Her most famous work, The Horse Fair, was completed in 1855 and brought her international recognition. It also brought her to the attention of Belgian art dealer Ernest Gambart. He persuaded her to travel to Britain (where she met Queen Victoria) and to tour with the painting. Thereafter, Gambart (but other dealers also) would purchase the reproduction rights to Bonheur’s paintings and sell engraved copies.

However, Bonheur found fame difficult to handle, and, in 1859, she retreated from Paris to a chateau at By, near the Forest of Fontainebleau, to sketch and paint and, over the years, receive many visitors. But it was an unconventional lifestyle she lived, wearing trousers, smoking (unusual for a woman at the time) and hunting; for a while and when focused on painting wild animals, she kept a couple of lions, supplied by Gambart.

She never married, but for 50 years shared her life with Nathalie Micas who had been a school friend since the age of 12. After Micas died she met an American artist, Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, more than 30 years her junior, and invited her to By to paint her portrait. But the relationship developed beyond that and Klumpke remained with Bonheur until she died on 25 May 1899, one century and one decade ago today. Brief biographies can be found at Wikipedia and The Art History Archive.

Bonheur left her estate, include hundreds of paintings, to Klumpke who then founded the Rosa Bonheur prize (at the Société des Artistes Français) and organised the Rosa Bonheur museum at the Fontainebleau palace. Klumpke’s biographical book about Bonheur was published in Paris in 1908 as Rosa Bonheur: Sa Vie Son Oeuvre. Ninety years later, in the 1990s, Gretchen Van Slyke translated the work and University of Michigan Press published it in English as - Rosa Bonheur: The Artist’s (Auto)biography. The strange title stems from the fact that Klumpke’s text was written in the first-person voice, as if she were Bonheur. The book also includes a large number of extracts from Klumpke’s diary.

Original copies of the French book, now a century old, can be bought on Abebooks - first editions cost several hundred pounds. However, much of the English version - a 2001 edition - is free to view at Googlebooks.

‘The [following] pages,’ Klumpke says in her book, ‘are excerpts from the diary where I wrote down the day’s events every evening. At the very least, they provide an exact account of life at the chateau. Having done my best to render my famous model’s words and deeds, I’d love to think that while my brush was retracing the lines of her face, my pen was drawing a good portrait of her character, especially her spirited offhand conversation.’

Here are some extracts from Klumpke’s diary.

1 July 1898
‘After the sitting this afternoon, Rosa Bonheur stretched out on her lounge chair for a smoke while I kept on working. She scolded me for rushing: ‘Ah! that Miss Anna! she doesn’t ever stop. True, I used to be like that. Now I tend to dawdle, doing less but thinking more. Also, I did more studies. I didn’t just start a huge canvas without having gathered all the documents I needed.’

She watched me wipe my palette and went on: ‘I don’t work like that. I never wipe it off till I’ve scraped with a knife and poured on some turpentine. That way the wood stays clean. This palette, for example, looks practically new, yet God knows how long I’ve been using it for skies. Take it for your touchups. I’ll even sign it for you.

She grabbed a brush and wrote: ‘A souvenir for Anna Klumpke. May my palette bring you good luck. Rosa Bonheur.’ ’

4 July 1898
‘ ‘Today is young America’s birthday,’ Rosa Bonheur announced this morning. ‘To celebrate, I’ll give you a long sitting. Use it well!’

I’d got a good start on the head, and I prayed to God to let me capture the penetrating gaze and the benevolent, poetic air that emanated from her whole person.

In the midst of posing, she blurted out: ‘You’ve got such goodness in your face I can’t help thinking of my mother. Your face is long and oval, mine is square. You say I’m cheerful? You’re young at heart. Never would I have believed that we’d get along so perfectly. Your portrait has got fine tone and texture; it’ll be good.’ ’

5 July 1898
‘I worked on the head today. After the sitting Rosa Bonheur looked at the canvas and said: ‘Let the paint dry. When I’ve got an important piece at this stage, sometimes I just let it sit for a whole year long.’

‘In that case, dear great artist, I’ve got time for a trip back to Boston.’

‘Ah! that’s not what I meant,’ she said. ‘While the head is drying, you can paint the hands, the dress, and any background details you want.’ ’

30 July 1898
‘Late this afternoon Rosa Bonheur came into the studio where I was working on the portrait’s accessories. She looked it over absentmindedly and gave me a compliment or two. Then she turned around and placed her hands on my shoulders. While I gazed at her in surprise, she asked in tones of tender supplication: ‘Anna, will you stay here and share my life? I’ve grown attached to you. Life will seem so sad after you’re gone. I’ll be so alone again.’ ’

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