French artist Rosa Bonheur is widely considered the most famous and commercially successful female painter of the 19th century. She gained international recognition as an animalier, or a painter of animals, and showed her work at the Palace of Fine Arts in Paris and The Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Dealers in Paris traded her paintings and the Belgian dealer Ernest Gambart represented her at the art market in London. Her first great success, Oxen Ploughing in Nevers, now at the Musée d’Orsay, was commissioned by the French government and won a First Medal at the Salon in 1849; and her most famous work is the monumental The Horse Fair at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was the first woman to be decorated with the French Legion of Honour and to be promoted to officer of the order. In 1859, her commercial success enabled her to buy an estate near Fontainebleau, where she lived for the rest of her life.
As an artist, Bonheur broke through the confining Victorian restrictions for women and committed her life to art as a full-time occupation. She also identified with social freedoms reserved for men, boldly breaking boundaries of gender expression. She hunted and smoked, and often wore men’s clothing. Rejecting traditional gender divisions, Bonheur led a life of self-reliance.
Bonheur’s lifelong partner for over forty years was the French painter Nathalie Micas, and after Micas’ death in 1889, the American painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke.
Financially independent and rejecting societal confines, Bonheur was a Free Woman, a term used at her time for the feminist ideal emerging in the late-19th century. Her independent and unconventional way of life put her at the forefront of the feminist movement.
A glimpse into Bonheur’s stellar commercial success as a painter can be found in the registers of the Parisian gallery Tedesco frères, held in the archives at the Getty Research Institute. The Tedesco brothers were dealers and art experts who specialized in 19th-century French painting. The firm opened in 1833 and remained a family business until 1964. It was closed by the Nazis in 1941 and reopened after the war. As a business model, the gallery frequently purchased directly from the artists and resold to other dealers or private collectors.
For the years 1880 to 1941, the registers of Tedesco frères feature approximately 13,360 entries for paintings by more than 300 artists, mostly French. Bonheur’s paintings of animals were in high demand. With 206 of her paintings traded by Tedesco frères between 1880 and 1922, Bonheur was among the gallery’s best-selling artists. In most cases, Bonheur’s paintings were sold directly to private collectors, both in Europe and United States.
The registers of Tedesco frères are an important source for tracing sales and marketing strategies for Bonheur’s paintings. Letters exchanged between Bonheur and the gallery reveal a personal relationship of esteem and friendship between the dealers and the artist. (Paintings by Bonheur’s lifelong companion Nathalie Micas were also sold by Tedesco frères.)
In Bonheur’s day, women were often only reluctantly educated as artists. Her commercial success likely inspired other women and also encouraged dealers to open the doors of their galleries to female artists at a time when Paris flourished as the art trade capital of the world. Artists from all over Europe, and from other countries were coming to Paris to engage with dealers.
Bonheur was not the only successful woman artist of her time represented by Tedesco frères. The gallery’s registers show profits from many female painters who like Bonheur gained recognition, exhibited in the Paris Salon, and participated in international expositions. According to gallery records, fifteen women were represented between 1880 and 1941.
Below, learn more about some of them.
The painter, sculptor, and designer Louise Abbéma, who regularly exhibited in the Paris Salon and whose artworks were shown in the Women’s Building at the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago, sold numerous paintings at Tedesco frères. Like Bonheur, Abbéma promoted the emerging image of the educated and freer New Woman.
The genre painter Zoé-Laure de Chatillon, née Delaune, and Madeleine Lemaire, née Coll, who specialized in genre scenes and elegant flower still lifes; both exhibited at the Woman’s Building at the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago and were successfully selling their paintings at Tedesco frères. The gallery’s sales records show Lemaire’s paintings selling for double or triple price. A fragment from the registers, shown below, shows several paintings by Lemaire acquired in June 1925 and sold within a few months with considerable profit.
Tedesco frères also traded numerous paintings by Marie Van Marcke de Lummen, known as Marie Diéterle. Like Bonheur, Diéterle was a painter of animals. She exhibited in the Paris Salon and participated in the Expositions Universelles of 1889 and 1900, receiving bronze medals at both expositions.
The accomplished Impressionist painter Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot, who exhibited in the Salon de Paris before she joined the circle of “rejected” Impressionists, was represented by Tedesco frères.
Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau was a successful American artist from New Hampshire, who lived in Paris and became the second wife of the acclaimed academic and salon painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Gardner Bouguereau was a member of an independent cooperative women’s studio in Paris and the first American woman to exhibit in the Paris Salon. Her paintings were accepted in twenty-five Paris Salons and she was awarded a gold medal at the 1872 Salon making her the first woman ever to receive such an honor. Tedesco frères traded several paintings by Gardner Bouguereau, all with high return.
A painter in the academic style, who studied with Bouguereau, was Eugénie Alexandrine Marie Salanson. Salanson exhibited in the Salon in 1877 and in the following year, she participated in the Exposition Universelle.
Among other women represented by Tedesco frères was Marguerite Gérard, a French painter and printmaker, a pupil of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, who had established a reputation for being a gifted genre painter.
Another was Jeanne Rongier, a French painter known for historic genre scenes after Dutch old masters, who exhibited her work at the Pennsylvania Building, the Palace of Fine Arts, and the Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Paintings by Marie de Garay, a prolific painter of genre scenes set in imaginary 18th-century interiors were traded by Tedesco frères; as well as paintings by Juana Romani, née Carolina Carlesimo, an Italian-born French artist valued as a painter of female portraits. Romani exhibited regularly in the Salon of the Société des Artistes Français.
The gallery also sold fashion prints by Isabelle Desgrange, who contributed illustrations to magazines such as La Mode Illustrée and botanical paintings and prints by Margaret Buret.
The sales records of paintings by numerous accomplished female artists not only testify to the notable presence and inclusion of women in the Parisian art trade but also provide evidence of commercial success. The gallery was instrumental in promoting women in a market traditionally dominated by men.