If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Bonheur, Plowing in the Nivernais

Rosa Bonheur, Plowing in the Nivernais (or The First Dressing), oil on canvas, 1849 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] BETH HARRIS: We're in the Musee d'Orsay and we're looking at Rosa Bonheur's light-filled painting called "Plowing in the Nivernais." STEVEN ZUCKER: That refers to both the region, and the kind of oxen that are the stars of this canvas. BETH HARRIS: They are. The human figure that pushes them along is hardly important. STEVEN ZUCKER: So Rosa Bonheur did some extraordinary things. She was an incredibly precocious girl. I think it was at age 14, she was actually sketching in the Louvre, and actually creating oil paintings. This was possible because her father was an artist and had really encouraged her. I think they were very liberal. BETH HARRIS: Otherwise, she would not have had her enormous artistic talent encouraged. She might not have ended up a painter at all. STEVEN ZUCKER: So this was made in 1849, which is just one year after the revolution. And, it's so interesting that an artist, now, is moving out into the countryside, away from all of the chaos of the city. BETH HARRIS: Where the revolution happened. STEVEN ZUCKER: I mean, we have this incredible image of these oxen turning the soil in the fall to prepare for the following year's season. And look at the soil itself, you almost get a sense that here is the strength of France. BETH HARRIS: The earth looks incredibly rich and fertile. So there is a sense of a kind of nationalistic idea of the French countryside, and that France will survive, and indeed thrive. STEVEN ZUCKER: And those oxygen are so powerful and so beautiful, and in a sense, So eternal. This is a ritual that has gone on long before the politics of the modern world. BETH HARRIS: And will continue long after. They come forward in a receding diagonal that moves into our space. So we have this sense of depth, and atmospheric perspective, and sense of weather, the warmth of the sunlight. It's so particularly and carefully observed. And it reminds me of so much that we see in the 1840s and then into the 1850s. Of this interest in rural life, of laborers, of the virtues of the countryside. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, when I look at this, the oxen, those backs are so beautifully aligned, they almost create their own horizon, like the hills beside them. And so, in a sense, they are the Earth itself. There is the sense of permanence. I think throughout the 1840s, especially with the kind of industrialization and growth of the cities that's taking place, there is this real desire to return to this much more basic truth. BETH HARRIS: Which resides in nature and the countryside. STEVEN ZUCKER: And in labor itself. But a kind of simple, very direct kind of labor. BETH HARRIS: So do you think Rosa Bonheur is giving us a conservative vision at this moment just after a very radical revolution of 1848, that brings the working class into power in a significant way? STEVEN ZUCKER: I think that there are conservative aspects here, but it's more complicated than that. She's breaking too many boundaries. She is emphasizing the importance of landscape, of animal painting itself, on a scale that is often reserved for history painting. She is a woman, not painting miniatures, not painting as an amateur, but as painting at the level of the highest professional. These are radical ideas, and I don't think we can see this as conservative painting. BETH HARRIS: And really remarkable accomplishments. [MUSIC PLAYING]