The Great British Art Tour: An artist who got police permission to wear men's clothes

With public art collections closed we are bringing the art to you, exploring highlights and hidden gems from across the country in partnership with Art UK. Today’s pick: Blackburn’s Barbouyo by Rosa Bonheur

‘Barbouyo’, 1879, Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899),
Skilled realism … detail of Barbouyo, 1879, by Rosa Bonheur. Photograph: Walter White/Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery
Skilled realism … detail of Barbouyo, 1879, by Rosa Bonheur. Photograph: Walter White/Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery
Catherine McManus, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

Last modified on Thu 18 Feb 2021 04.05 EST

Rosa Bonheur was born in Bordeaux, France, in 1822. Her early education was disrupted – she was expelled from a number of schools – until her father, a landscape and portrait painter, intervened to begin formally training her as an artist. Her work was first exhibited in the Paris Salon when she was 19, at a time when women were often excluded from the art profession.

Barbouyo illustrates the skilled style of realism Bonheur was capable of and celebrated for. Finished in 1879, it is a similar piece to her earlier depiction of an otterhound Brizo, A Shepherd’s Dog, now in London’s Wallace Collection. She studied the anatomy and osteology of animals in abattoirs and in the École nationale vétérinaire d’Alfort in Paris. For her painting The Horse Fair (in the National Gallery), she was granted official police permission to wear men’s clothing, which allowed her to attend horse markets, sketching and studying the animals’ movements without drawing attention to herself.

Barbouyo, 1879, H 48.8 x W 36.9 cm by Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899)
Barbouyo (H48.8 x W36.9cm). Photograph: Walter White/Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

She cropped her hair, chain-smoked and wore trousers, shirts and ties, and lived alongside her companion and partner Nathalie Micas for over 40 years. As a queer icon comparable to the likes of England’s Anne Lister, Bonheur could potentially be characterised as the French “Gentleman Jack”. After Nathalie’s death in 1889, Bonheur formed a relationship with American painter Anna Klumpke lasting for the rest of her life. Buried alongside both women at the Père Lachaise cemetery in 1899, the shared headstone reads: “Friendship is divine affection.”

You can see more art from the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery on Art UK here and find out more on the museum’s website.

This series is brought to you in collaboration with Art UK, which brings the nation’s art together on one digital platform and tells the stories behind the art. The website shows works by 50,000 artists from more than 3,000 venues including museums, universities and hospitals as well as thousands of public sculptures. Discover the art you own here.

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