I wasn’t planning to write a review of Art is a Tyrant: The Unconventional Life of Rosa Bonheur (London: Icon Books, Ltd., 2020). I bought Catherine Hewitt’s new biography of French animal painter Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) simply to read it for fun. But after enjoying it so much, it feels wrong not to spread the word.
As the subtitle suggests, Rosa Bonheur was definitely unconventional. A female artist who smoked, wore pants and short hair, played with wild animals, and set-up house with a life-long female companion, she defied basically every convention that existed for a 19th-century Frenchwoman. And yet, people ended up loving and respecting her for it. She became famous and decorated, dined with royalty, and entertained luminaries from all over the world in her studio. A popular story about Bonheur involves her getting a special license from the French police so she could wear pants to visit horse fairs and slaughterhouses. As I quickly learned in this book, that’s nowhere near the most interesting or unusual thing about her. (Personally, I think that honor goes to her personal menagerie.) With all that going on, how could her life story not be entertaining?
A quotation from Art Quarterly on the book’s back cover says that it is “written every bit as compellingly as the best of novels”. I completely agree. I did feel like I was reading a novel most of the time, but with the added bonus that it was all totally true. Although the book doesn’t have any actual dialogue, Rosa and her compatriots’ voices come through in Hewitt’s frequent use of quotations from letters and diaries. I felt like I got to know Rosa through this book to a degree that’s rare in a biography. Although she was such an individual and eccentric figure, I had no trouble connecting and sympathizing with her. She may have been unusual, but she’s not particularly difficult to relate to once you understand her a bit. She was a colorful personality who associated with lots of other colorful personalities, and I enjoyed getting to know her family and friends as well.
Hewitt is a master of the cliff-hanger. She ends each chapter and even some paragraphs on such tantalizing notes that I kept getting sucking back in, even when I had planned to take a break. As the 44 pages of footnotes in the back prove, she did tons of research to write this book. She keeps a consistently high level of credibility by mentioning her sources throughout the text, but she does so without interrupting the narrative or making it feel like an academic text. The book is pretty long – more than 400 pages not including the end matter – but it doesn’t drag at any point. It fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing and strongly recommend it to others.
Hewitt’s biography comes at a great time. Bonheur’s former home, the Chateau of By, has recently opened as a museum, thanks to the dedication of its new owner, Katherine Brault, and her family. You can learn more in this Smithsonian Mag article, which is where I first found out about the book.
Read what I wrote about The Horse Fair, one of Rosa Bonheur’s most famous paintings, for DailyArt Magazine in 2019.