A major new Rosa Bonheur retrospective opened this week at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, bringing together almost 200 of her paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs in the bicentenary of her birth. But some are casting scrutiny on the way in which aspects of Bonheur’s biography — namely, her sexual identity — are being characterized by Katherine Brault, the owner of Bonheur’s chateau and a key collaborator in the staging of the exhibition.
Bonheur, once the wealthiest and best-known woman artist in the 19th century, is less famous today, though she is fiercely championed by feminist and queer historians for her open refusal of gender norms and her lifelong relationships with women.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Brault is quoted as saying that there is no proof that Bonheur was a lesbian, and in a catalogue essay, she describes Bonheur’s relationship with a close female friend whom she lived with for decades as an “act of independence and extraordinary sisterhood.”
Bridget Quinn, a writer and Hyperallergic contributor whose 2017 book Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order) includes a chapter on Bonheur, immediately pushed back on Brault’s interpretations of Bonheur’s identity and life.
“What ‘proof’ is adequate? What proof is adequate in a heterosexual relationship? Marriage?” she posed on Twitter.
When reached for comment, Katherine Brault and her daughter Lou Brault, assistant director of the chateau, told Hyperallergic that they were not interviewed for the recent Times article. “Our words were taken out of context, they are from an interview conducted several years ago,” they said.
“Our purpose has never been deny or conceal any sexual identity of the artist. We don’t particularly work on this aspect of Bonheur’s life,” the Braults said. “The center of our work is to value the artist, her work and to value the collection that we have rediscovered in her Château de By. We are also working on creating through our research and discoveries, the various events of the bicentenary and to take part in the rehabilitation of this immense painter, who in France, had fallen into oblivion.”
Rosa Bonheur, born to a mother who was a piano teacher and a father who was part of the Saint-Simonian utopian movement, grew up in poverty and began painting animals at a young age. By adolescence, she became proficient in representing animals in movement with high precision, and by her early 20s, she had won a prize from the prestigious Paris Salon for her work. Over her life, she painted a wide range of animals, including cows, horses, lambs, bulls, rabbits, elk, lions, tigers, and dogs. Her largest and perhaps most renowned work, “The Horse Fair” (1852–55), depicts a spirited array of horses barely able to be tamed by their handlers and now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Bonheur lived for over four decades with Nathalie Micas, a childhood friend who was also an artist and painter. Micas stewarded the house and managed the animals, and Bonheur painted and hunted in the woods. When she died, she wrote to a friend in grief that she loved Nathalie “more and more as we advanced in life,” and that Nathalie alone really knew her.
Catherine Hewitt, author of a 2021 biography on Bonheur, writes in her book: “That Rosa and Nathalie each represented the other’s closest relationship, there could be no doubt.” She adds that “their affection and tender care for each other was that of a married couple,” but does not speculate on whether they were physically intimate, noting that “no human would ever witness what occurred between Rosa and Nathalie once their door had been pushed closed and they were alone.”
“Had I been a man, I would have married her, and nobody could have dreamed up all those silly stories,” Bonheur herself wrote about Micas.
Upon Micas’s death in 1889, Bonheur petitioned American photographer and painter Anna Klumpke to live with her. Bonheur was 67 and Klumpke 33; Klumpke accepted. Bonheur called the arrangement a “divine marriage of two souls.” When Bonheur died at 77, she was laid to rest next to Micas in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery. And when Klumpke passed in 1942 in San Francisco, she joined them in the same cemetery.
Brault — owner of Bonheur’s home, the Château de By in north-central France — has no familial kinship with Bonheur or any of her companions. Immediately upon entering Bonheur’s kitchen in 2014, she decided she needed to buy the property; through a combination of loans and a grant personally delivered by French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, she secured the $2.5 million chateau in 2017. Over the past several years, Brault estimates that she has discovered over 50,000 items of art, objects, and ephemera by or related to Bonheur in her home — including an almost 15-foot-long canvas drawing that will be exhibited to the public for the first time at the Musée d’Orsay’s show.
Katherine and Lou Brault have been tight-lipped on matters of Bonheur’s sexuality. Speaking about tour groups she gives at Bonheur’s chateau, Lou said to the Smithsonian in 2020: “I always get a question about her sexuality. And I respond, ‘It’s not so easy to say. There are doubts.’”
“Of course, there’s no place where she says, ‘I’m a lesbian,’” Quinn told Hyperallergic. “But that’s not the evidence. The evidence is not what she says — it’s how she lives.” Citing the fact that Nathalie Micas’s father consecrated Micas and Bonheur together for life on his deathbed, Quinn adds, “If it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s not about, ‘did they have sex with each other?’”
In an email to Hyperallergic, Lou and Katherine Brault warned of reading Bonheur’s biography “through the yardstick of preoccupations of our time — absolutely legitimate — but anchored in a very contemporary vision of the world and of the relations between individuals.”
“Rosa Bonheur is a woman who lived in a given context, at a given time. And our job is to respect this perspective. For example, when Rosa Bonheur uses the word ‘compagne/companion,’ we have to take into account its meaning in the 19th century, which is very different from its current meaning,” they wrote, adding that they “attach great importance to the valorization of the role of Nathalie Micas and Anna Klumpke in Rosa Bonheur’s life … beyond a possible love story.”
Gretchen van Slyke, a professor of French at the University of Vermont who has published research on Bonheur’s cross-dressing, told Hyperallergic that when Bonheur fell in love with women, “it was a great psychological intimacy.” She adds: “Whether there was physical intimacy, I don’t know. I doubt it.”
Van Slyke offers that Bonheur’s own early experiences with an absent father and a mother who left to do the brunt of childrearing and housekeeping made Bonheur permanently disdainful of the institution of marriage.
“I believe that Rosa Bonheur became very practical and said to herself, ‘I see women being sacrificed all the time in marriage and family. I’m going to make a life for myself, where I can choose and where I can cooperate,’” she said. She adds that Boston marriages in which women would take care of each other in various ways were common in the late 19th century.
“She kept her mouth shut about sex,” van Slyke said. “Nineteenth-century attitudes are not our attitudes, and attitudes these days are in no way monolithic.” The French Ministry of Culture remembers Bonheur less ambiguously in its website entry, which reads, “If today her work has fallen into oblivion, she is remembered as one of the figures of the homosexual and feminist cause.”
Speculating on Katherine Brault’s reluctance to call Bonheur a lesbian, Quinn said, “I suspect she is rightly, on some level, outraged that an important artist has been overlooked.”
“I would imagine that when people are so interested in her sexuality, that is upsetting because she wants it to be about art. But the erasure of lesbians from history is profound,” Quinn continued. “It always comes down to, ‘we don’t know,’ and ‘there’s no proof.’ And it’s tiresome.”
Editor’s note 10/21/22 12pm EDT: This article has been updated with quotes from Katherine and Lou Brault.