Museum Minute: A French Artist With A Passion For The American West

Nov 12, 2019

Credit Whitney Western Art Museum

Rosa Bonheur was a famous French animal artist during the late 19th century. She's one of the few female artists in the Whitney Western Art Museum collection. Karen McWhorter, the curator, said the collection has many more contemporary women represented.

"It was hard to be an artist as a women at her time. [It's], in fact, the reason she painted animals," said McWhorter. "She was called an animalia or animal painter because women were dissuaded from entering the traditional academic settings because of the way that academic art is taught...from studying live, nude models."

McWhorter said Bonheur was very fascinated by the American West by what it represented: freedom, independence and equality. She had colleagues send her prairie grass, western memorabilia and other pieces of natural history so she could try to capture it.

So when Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show arrived in France, she made sure to go and went even as far to invite Buffalo Bill to sit for a portrait.

"She sketched on the grounds [of the show] and received permission to paint the bison, the Native American actors who had come with Bill," said McWhorter. "And she invited Bill to have his portrait painted by her. She asked him to her estate at Fontainebleau, and he accompanied her."

McWhorter said Buffalo Bill loved the portrait so much that he reproduced it in posters for his show.