This portrait is unique- a short-haired woman in a black dress stands next to a bull. She has a large sketch book in her left hand, and she holds a brush in her right hand, which rests on the neck of the bull. The woman gazes far beyond, while the bull looks directly at us. Who is the woman in the picture? Why is she with the bull?
Edouard Louis Dubufe was a well known artist in 19 century Paris. He gained fame painting portraits for Emperor Napoleon the third and the Empress. This painting was created for the Salon, modelled by Rosa Bonheur, a famous painter who was 35 at that time. She was younger than Dubufe, but she was well known for her paintings of animals in realist style. Born as a daughter of a painter, Bonheur raised animals as a child and longed to be well known for her animal paintings. She continued to live with rabbits, ducks, chipmunks, goats and mares after becoming a painter. She went out to the fields to observe and sketch animals and visited slaughterhouses to study animal anatomy.
Bonheur was groundbreaking in many aspects. She had short hair, wore pants, smoked and lived as a lesbian. Her attire was an expression of refusal to conform to convention, but also a means to defy herself from molestation from men at slaughterhouses or horse fairs. She believed that all animals had souls and liked to characterize people as animals. When Dubufe first created this portrait, he drew Bonheur leaning next to a table. Bonheur said she wanted to have a bull instead of a boring table, so she painted one herself at the consent of Dubufe.
Bulls were Bonheur’s favorite animal. The animal is a symbol of Luke the Evangelist, known as the patron saint of artists. In other words, the bull in the painting symbolizes Bonheur as a strong and steadfast artist.