Hewitt documents Bonheur’s self-deprecatory humour and many acts of kindness, though she can’t conceal the authoritarian streak or the mercurial mood of self-contradiction. ‘Rosa Bonheur the artist had become a convenient screen behind which Rosa Bonheur the woman could hide – and frequently did.’ The domestic menagerie was only one kind of disguise: when Millais and Frith came to pay homage to her at Fontainebleau in 1878, she greeted them dressed as an abbé. Her biography will hopefully spur more visits to the By estate, where Bonheur’s studio has recently been saved from closure.
Such an apparently non‑binary performance is a gift to the biographer, who is always under pressure to illustrate the contemporary resonance of her subject. But Hewitt never really pushes further into the muddling contradictions of Bonheur’s life and times. Here was a cross-dressing lesbian who liked to opine that other women should stick to frocks and an animal painter who insisted on the dignity of her dumb subjects while simultaneously making a fortune out of them. Not all of which is quite apparent from this diligently researched, beautifully produced and insistently sympathetic biography.
Does she merit such a reverent and lengthy biography? At more than 400 pages, this book is more lumbering ox than gambolling lamb. Historical background is not so much sketched as scored in. “Oh no, here we go,” you think as Hewitt ploughs through another digression on Saint-Simonianism, the Knights Templar, French translations of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the abattoirs of Paris, cross-channel paddle steamers, gynaecology in the 1880s, or the Auvergne and its environs.