One of the most famous woman painters of the 19th Century, Rosa Bonheur was born in Bordeaux in 1822, daughter to Raymond Bonheur who was a landscape and portrait painter and friends with Francisco Goya who was living there in exile. From an early age, Bonheur showed an extraordinary talent and penchant for drawing animals, which she brought to life with much dexterity. Her strength and independence of character was not only expressed in her powerful images, but also in her decision to leave school, her father and the atelier where she was an apprentice and escape to the Bois de Boulogne. There she was inspired by the wilderness, often dressing as a man in order to frequent the slaughterhouses, fairs and horse shows to gain a better understanding of her subjects (fig. 1). She studied the animals closely, creating numerous sketches (fig. 2) before executing the full-scale paintings.
As the Academie de Beaux-Arts did not accept women, the young artist began her artist training copying from sketch books and drawing from taxodermic models (fig. 3) and debuted at the Salon in 1841 with two paintings. But it was not until 1848, at the age of twenty-six, that she received a first place with her painting entitled Labourage Nivernais, now in the Musee d'Orsay. With that, her success was assured. The artist's fame grew when a small gallery bought the reproduction rights to her paintings and made etchings of her works. Queen Victoria was so enthralled by an etching she saw that she demanded to own Bonheur's work. The Queen's patronage stimulated purchases from the aristocracy of England.
The present painting is one of the compositions dedicated by Rosa Bonheur to deer in their natural habitat, one of her consistent themes which inspired a handful of masterpieces, from the time of her arrival at the Chateau de Bye in Tomery (1860) to her death (June 1899).
In the work under consideration, the two deer, a younger one presented frontally and a large stag in profile in front of him appear in a meadow with the Fontainebleau Forest in the back ground. Rosa Bonheur was so fond of these majestic animal that at one point, in the menagerie of her estate she had domesticated a large stag, which she portrayed frontally in the Monarch of the Forest, a painting of 1879 which was exhibited fourteen years later (1893) at the Chicago Exposition universelle. In fact the larger male in our picture seem to portray that same animal, except for the antlers - slightly less developed in this specimen. Such similarities are not surprising because Rosa worked from calques, drawings on tracing paper which she kept in her atelier and used over the years because it allowed her to compose images from a reservoir of prototypes, originally studied from nature.
The dominance of a pale purple color in this landscape and the fact that the images of the deer are clearly derived from calques, are stylistic elements that induce me to date the painting at the end of the artist's career, around 1895-97.
The painting has been restretched and relined: the news strechers do not bear any indication or seals which prevents us from asserting whether or not it was part of the posthumous estate exhibition at Galerie George Petit in 30 May - 2 June 1900 in which the deer oil paintings numbered nearly one hundred entries (from no. 320 to 415), the drawings over four hundred (from no. 1479 to 1516) and calques only six (nos. 1804-1809). The present painting could be oil no. 321, Deux cerfs dans la foret, (Vente George Petit, Catalogue des tableaux par Rosa Bonheur, p. 73, no. 321, illustrated p. 76); however we cannot be certain of it because in the relining process, in fact, there were some damages done to this work: the signature and a possible date underneath it, were blurred and the burning out of some glazes in the center of the painting caused a slight loss of depth in the perception of the two deer. Rosa Bonheur practiced a technique in which thin coats of paint were often layered and it is not uncommon to witness this kind of problems with paintings no longer on first canvas.
The present lot comes from the collection of William Keeney Bixby and was inherited by the present owner. A letter to Bixby, dated 11 Juin 1898, has been preserved in the family archive (fig. 4). The letter refers to two paintings for a certain Ms. Belmont and Bonheur apologizes for the delay in finishing them. Bixby possessed other Bonheurs in his collection so it is likely, given the date of the painting, that during her visit to St. Louis she sold him this painting as well. Bixby was born in Michigan in 1857. After his graduation from high school, the young man went armed with a letter from Jefferson Davis to the Governor of Texas, who got the sixteen-year-old a job as night watchman and baggage-man for the International Great Northern Railroad at Palestine, Texas. An Algerish touch to this story is the part played by the roughly dressed old man who frequently dropped around at night and pestered the boy with apparently idle questions about railroading. The boy was courteous and intelligent and by the end of the year, the man presented himself to him as, H. M. Hoxie, president of the president of the railroad. The result was promotion to the post of general baggage agent in San Antonio for young Bixby. Mr. Hoxie took a liking to Bixby, and when he became president of the Missouri Pacific Railroad in St. Louis, he took Bixby with him and made him a printing and stationery buyer for all the Gould lines.
After several years in St. Louis, William McMillan, president of the Missouri Car and Foundry Company, offered the rapidly rising young man a still better job and at the age of thirty-one he became vice-president and general manager.
Soon the company became such a large factor in freight-car building that it found it advantageous to merge with the Peninsular Car Company, the first step in a series of mergers out of which came the American Car and Foundry Company, of which Bixby became President, and soon thereafter was elected chairman of the board. In 1905, at the age of forty-eight, he retired.
Bixby's aesthetic appreciation had always been keen and he was a voracious reader. When he retired, he devoted himself to collecting books, autographs, and paintings, with the same voracity with which he had pursued his business career. Among his better-known treasures were the Mary Wollstonecraft copy of Queen Mab, the manuscripts of Burns's To Mary in Heaven, Kipling's Recessional, Thoreau's Walden, Andre's Journal, Burr's Journal, Reade's The Cloister and the Hearth, Shelley's Note-Books, Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture. His art collection was no less impressive. It included a fine Rembrandt, several paintings by Corot, a Franz Hals, and a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.
Bixby was a quiet but vigorous supporter of educational and charitable foundations in St. Louis, Washington University being a particular beneficiary. He was also generous in making available to scholars his manuscript material. At Bixby's expense, the Bibliophile Society reproduced twenty-eight manuscripts; the Franklin Club of St. Louis reproduced two, the Society of Dofobs of Chicago two, and the Burns Club of St. Louis one. At Christmas he frequently distributed facsimiles of his manuscripts to his friends. The considerable rare book collection at Washington University has its foundation in gifts from Bixby.
Upon retirement, Bixby's involvement in his community and philanthropy expanded. He was the director of the St. Louis Union Trust Company. He served for a while as president of the Laclede Gas Company of St. Louis and later, in 1909, as receiver of the Wabash Railroad. From June 1928 to June 1930 he was president of the Washington University Corporation in St. Louis. While president of the City Art Museum he had a large part in persuading the city of St. Louis to set aside a portion of each tax dollar for support of the Museum. When president of the Missouri Historical Society he gave that organization Thomas Jefferson letters, the original Burr-Hamilton correspondence, Eugene Field letters, autograph material relating to the activities of Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston. He was a director of the St. Louis Public Library, an original incorporator of the American Red Cross, vice-president of the American Federation of Art, and a director of the National Gallery of Art.
This work has been examined and authenticated by Professor Annie-Paul Quinsac. We would like to thank Professor Quinsac for help in researching and preparing this catalogue note.
(fig. 1) Le cirque de Buffalo Bill a l'Exposition de 1889, Paris, Viollet Collection.
(fig. 2) R. Bonheur, Etudes de cerf, Musée National du Château de Fontainebleau.
(fig. 3) Rosa Bonheur drawing a taxodermal stag suspended upright by ropes from a tree.
(fig. 4) A letter from Rosa Bonheur to W. K. Bixby, dated 11 June 1898.
(fig. 5) Rosa Bonheur lying next to a tiger cub.