Rosa Bonheur, the most famous female painter of the 19th century, was a queer cross-dresser who honored what she called the “androgyne Christ.” She had two consecutive long-term relationships with women. She died on May 25, 1899.
Born in France on March 16, 1822, Bonheur received much acclaim in her lifetime for her paintings of animals. In recent decades she has been celebrated as a queer pioneer, feminist icon, and role model for the LGBTQ community. Her achievements grew out of an unusual religious upbringing in the proto-feminist Saint-Simonian sect, and the queer Christian ideals that she expressed in adulthood. Bonheur’s gender-bending lifestyle has been covered extensively by scholars, but her spirituality has received much less attention.
Her parents raised her in Saint-Simonianism, a French utopian Christian-socialist movement that advocated equality for women and prophesied the coming of a female messiah. Her father was an artist and an ardent apostle for the Saint-Simonian religion. Bonheur writes a whole chapter about growing up as a Saint-Simonian in the book “Rosa Bonheur: The Artist’s (Auto)biography,” which she wrote with her companion Anna Klumpke.
The Saint-Simonian concept of gender equality paved the way for Bonheur’s father to train her as a painter — and for her own defiance of gender norms. As she put it, “To his doctrines I owe my great and glorious ambition for the sex to which I proudly belong and whose independence I shall defend until my dying day.”
Permission to cross-dress
Cross-dressing was illegal in France at that time, but she got permission from the police to wear men’s trousers so she could sketch at such male-dominated places as horse fairs and slaughterhouses. She broke rules of feminine behavior by smoking cigars and wearing her hair short. She was never arrested for wearing men’s clothes, but she was arrested once in female attire when a policeman thought she was a man pretending to be a woman!
Bonheur had two female companions in her lifetime. She spent 50 years living with her childhood sweetheart Nathalie Micas (1824-1889).
Bonheur grieved deeply for Micas and then shared the last years of her life with a new companion, American painter Anna Klumpke (Oct. 28, 1856 – Feb. 9, 1942). Klumpke had been fascinated with Bonheur since childhood, when she received a “Rosa” as a gift. Bonheur was so famous back then that dolls were fashioned in her image. Klumpke grew up to become a talented portrait artist. Determined to paint Bonheur’s portrait, she approached her 1889 under the pretext of being an interpreter for a horse dealer. Soon she moved into Bonheur’s estate, where they lived together until Bonheur’s death about a decade later. Her 1898 portrait of Bonheur at her easel hangs in the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
One of their joint projects was writing Bonheur’s autobiography. In it Bonheur discusses her religious beliefs, stating, “I get blamed for not going to church! I may have more religion than the folks who, instead of doing their best to lead a blameless life, go mutter prayers there every day in a language they don’t understand…. I’ve written my own versions of the most important Catholic prayers.”
Here are some excerpts from prayers written by Bonheur and published in her autobiography:
Bonheur’s version of the Hail Mary prayer:
Hail, O earth full of grace, the living God is with you. Blessed are you among all the planets, the fruit of your womb is our salvation. Holy earth, mother of love, pour out your grace on those who suffer, now and in our divine transformation.
From Bonheur’s Creed:
I believe in God the all-powerful, everlasting Father, creator of all things eternal. I believe in his beloved Son, the saving Two, androgyne Christ, the highest point of human transformation, the sublime manifestation of the living God who is in everything that is.
Bonheur died at age 77, and Klumpke went on to champion Bonheur’s work until she died in 1942. Bonheur, Klumpke and Micas are all buried together in a grave in Paris.
A recent portrait of Bonheur is included in the “Butch Heroes” series by Ria Brodell, a culturally Catholic gender-queer artist in the Boston area. For more about Brodell, see “Artist paints history’s butch heroes: Ria Brodell interview.”
Bonheur’s most famous paintings are “The Horse Fair” and “Plowing in the Nivernais,” but she leaves a large legacy of art depicting horses, cattle, sheep, lions, dogs, and many other creatures. A selection of her work is posted below.
“Royalty at Home” by Rosa Bonheur (Wikimedia Commons)
“The Horse Fair” by Rosa Bonheur (Wikimedia Commons)
“Relay Hunting” by Rosa Bonheur (Wikimedia Commons)
“Plowing in the Nivernais” by Rosa Bonheur (Wikimedia Commons)
“Sultan and Rosette” by Rosa Bonheur (Wikimedia Commons)
Top image credit:
Rosa Bonheur, 1865, wearing the medal of the Legion of Honor (Wikimedia Commons)
Rosa Bonheur (Art History Archive)
Rosa Bonheur at the Legacy Project
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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