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Born in Bordeaux in 1822, Bonheur received her training from her father, a painter, who encouraged his young daughter’s artistic talents and independence.
Precocious and gifted, she was successful from a very young age; she exhibited at the Salon for the first time at the age of 19, and received medals for her work. Bonheur’s love for animals, especially horses, provided inspiration for her art. Working from direct observation of nature, she kept a small menagerie, frequented slaughterhouses, and dissected animals to gain anatomical knowledge.
It was such a painting that spring-boarded Bonheur to international fame. Her masterpiece, ‘The Horse Fair’ (1853; New York, Met), depicting the Parisian horse market, showed to triumphant acclaim at the Paris Salon. It subsequently toured Great Britain and the USA and was widely disseminated as a print.
"As far as males go, I only like the bulls I paint"
Bonheur lived unconventionally – she wore her hair short, smoked, and lived with her female companion, Nathalie Micas. To paint ‘The Horse Fair’, she had even gained permission from the local police to wear trousers so that she could work undisturbed in the masculine environment of the horse market. “As far as males go,” she said, “I only like the bulls I paint.”
Despite living, and, as some critics claimed, painting like a man, she became the first female artist to be awarded the Legion of Honour in 1865 and, 30 years later, was the first woman ever to become an Officer of the Legion of Honour.