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The Horse Fair

Updated on November 24, 2016

"A Feminine Perspective"

The Horse Fair, 1853–55, Rosa Bonheur (French), Oil on canvas

Aspiring to become a respected female artist during the nineteenth century was certainly an unthinkable pursuit for most women. Even more unthinkable of women in those times, was to wear men trousers. But one female artist took her stand, and challenged the prejudices of her era, making a celebrate name for herself in the process. Her name was Rose Bonheur.

Rose Bonheur was born March16th, 1822 in Bordeaux, France, in a time of great political stress. Perhaps her radical personality was influenced by her father Raymond Bonheur, who besides being an artist himself, was also part of a political group known as the Saint-Simonians who believed in equality between men and woman. Whether Rose, was a nineteenth century feminist or not, it is open to question, yet one fact remains true; Rose stunned all her contemporaries in the Salon in Paris when she revealed her monumental masterpiece; Le Marché aux Chevaux, better known in the United States as: The Horse Fair.

I was immediately drawn to the painting, as I searched through the Masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection book, in search for a work of art that would arise in me a sense of connection. Bonheur’s style is a stray away from the classical realism and romanticism of the time, and is firmly rooted in realism. Her fascination with animal subjects also gained her fame as an animalier (painter of animals). She painted what inspired her in nature with such thoughtful definition and details, that looking at this painting creates the illusion that you can step into the painting and become part of the action.

At first glance it may seem like an effortless touch of pure genius, but a closer look helps one appreciate that this painting was nothing less than the product of stern work, and determination. Numerous drawings were sketched, and for a year and a half, twice a week, the artist visited the horse market in Paris, in order to gain a better understanding of her subject and to work on her composition. She often when disguised as a man to avoid attracting unnecessary attention. She also visited animal slaughter houses to gain more knowledge of animal anatomy, something that was not permissible for woman to do in those times, and for which she had to seek a permit. She obviously polished her knowledge of animal anatomy as can be appreciated in this painting.

For realist artists, the clever use of movement and dramatic lighting is the key behind their mastery. To display movement, Rose gives the horses the impression of acting unruly as they are either being tugged or mounted into the fair’s showground. Drawing inspiration from one of her favorite works of art; The Parthenon Frieze, she manages to create in her horses this boisterousness by expertly painting some of the horses in semi-curved postures, hooves off the ground, and with swaying manes. The colors of the horses and the textures of their sleek skins are so true to their nature, and seem so realistic that anyone with sufficient equestrian knowledge can clearly identify the horse breeds. Although the faces of most horsemen seem contemplative, as if in response to the prelude of events lying ahead, one horseman seems to be quite agitated at his horse’s stubbornness to heed in the direction of his pull. Another man on a nearby horse seems quietly amused by the scene. At the far left you can see two other horsemen wrestling with another obstinate horse. At the vantage point, where the eyes start leading you away from the center of the picture, you can appreciate a group of horse fans as they await patiently; some lye upon big rocks; as the horses start making their way through into the open field behind the lined trees.

The shadows casted by the reckless horses as they make their way through tightly packed soil, contrasted by the sunlight which seems to arise upwards from the ground, suggests early morning hours when the sun is still low in the horizon. Another feature, suggesting this time of day as the most likely, is that the trees are bathed in any lighting from above. The stormy looking clouds also suggest a possibility of rain, which in my opinion adds even more emotional power to the painting. In fact, it may well be the use of light in such a true-to-life fashion, the triumphant scheme behind the success of this painting.

The goal of realism is to depict nature as is; and not as it should be, like in classical realism, or romanticism. Therefore, it is not difficult to relate to a scene painted during the nineteenth century with the same ease as if it had been painted today. “The Horse Fair”, is as vivid as any modern day scene of a similar event. The oil palette adheres strictly to the earth tones, bringing about an air of being one with nature. And that is precisely the goal of the realists, a reunification of mankind with nature, the common, and the ordinary. This painting certainly attests to the spirit of this painter: advancement towards independence from subjectivity and religious sentimentalism. Through her art this artist seem to be paving the road for a promising era of objectivity (as nature is) and scientific discoveries.

On a personal note, this painting evokes in me an urge to return to the modest life of rural living, where nature and simplicity are one. It makes me understand why the artist undertook this road in creating art instead of following the traditional format, where ideas were always set on an ideal, and not what was. Realists claimed the style was a tribute to God and creation more than classical realism ever was, as it depicted nature in its entire splendor. I agree.

I must say, I have a renewed understanding of what this movement called realism was all about, and can clearly see the difference between this art form and every other. I admire the genius behind this work of art, and truly believe that artists should always be true to their beliefs, and therefore respected for their honest contributions to the humanities. The bond between nature and man should never be underestimated, for it has always been nature the great muse behind most great thinkers.

AlthoughRose’s painting sold for 40,000 francs back in 1905, it was repurchased by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it is now part of the museum’s collection for all nature lovers to enjoy. I am certainly visiting soon.

ited Bibliography:

"Rosa Bonheur." Merriam Webster's Biographical Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1995. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.

Burn, Barbara. Masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art ;, 1993. Print.

"Rosa Bonheur - Biography, Quotations & Art - The Art History Archive." The Art History Archive - Art Resources for Students and Academics. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <>.


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