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A girl of something over ten, of sturdy build, with a dark complexion, deep blue eyes, and strong features crowned by a head of clustering curls, is sitting in the window of a plainly furnished room, high up in an apartment-house in Paris. In a cage at her side is a parrot, which, with its head on one side, is gravely calling out the letters of the alphabet, while the child as gravely repeats them, interrupting the lesson every now and then by a visit to the other side of the room, where a pet lamb greets its young mistress with a friendly bleat.
There came a time when the charge of such a child, so averse to rules and so given to strange ways of passing her time, became too much for the old servant with her orthodox views of life, and she persuaded Rosa's father to put her as a day-scholar with the nuns at Chaillot, a small suburb of Paris. How it happened that she was allowed to go back and forth alone, between home and school, we do not know; but it is not to be wondered at if she were irregular in her hours; if, one day, she set the nuns wondering why she did not appear at school-opening, and another day put the old servant into a twitter because she did not come home in season. The truth was, she had found that there was something better in Paris than streets and shops and tall houses; she had discovered a wood there, a veritable forest, with trees, and pools of water, and birds, and wild flowers, and though this enchanted spot which citizens called the Bois de Boulogne—not then a formal park as it is to-day—was off the road to Chaillot, yet it was not so far that she need fear getting lost in going there or in coming back. No wonder, then, if, once this way discovered of escape from tiresome school duties, it was travelled so often by Rosalie, and that her school-work became in consequence so unsatisfactory that at length the patient nuns remonstrated. They advised Rosa's father, since she neither would nor could learn anything from books, that it would be better to put her to some useful trade by which she might earn her living; and the good sisters suggested—dressmaking! The wisdom of these ladies, who could not see that they were dealing with the last woman in the world to whom dressmaking could be interesting, was matched by that of the father, who showed himself so blind to the character of his daughter that he resolved to act at once upon the advice of the nuns; and without consulting the wishes of poor Rosalie he apprenticed her straightway to a Parisian dressmaker. The docile girl allowed the yoke to be slipped over her head without complaint, but the confinement wore upon her health and spirits, and after a short trial the experiment had to be abandoned. Her father yielded to her entreaties and took her home.
The girl was long in coming to a knowledge of herself. Although she was to be, in time, a famous artist, the familiar legend of the biographers is wanting in her case; we read nothing about scribbled books or walls defaced by childish sketches, nor does she appear to have handled a pencil or a brush until she was a girl well grown. Her father's means were not sufficient to give Rosa or his other children an education such as he could wish; but an expedient suggested itself in his perplexity over this latest experiment in providing for his eldest daughter: he proposed to the principal of a young ladies' school where he taught drawing, that his services should be accepted in payment of Rosa's education. The offer was accepted, and in the regular course of study Rosa became a member of her father's drawing-class. It was not long before she surpassed all her school-fellows in that department, and found herself for the first time in her life in possession of the key to that happiness which consists in knowing what we can do, and feeling the strength within us to do it. Some of the biographers of Rosa's life speak of unhappy days at this school: the richer girls made sport of the dress of the drawing-master's daughter, and of her independent, awkward ways. Her progress in drawing, too, was counterbalanced by her slowness in her other studies; in fact her new accomplishment was such a delight to her, that in her devotion to it she became less and less interested in her books; and as for dress—that it should be clean and suited both to her means and to the work she was doing, was all that concerned her, then or since!
At the end of her first year in school, Rosa obtained her father's permission to give up her other studies and to enter his studio as pupil and assistant. From that time, though as yet she had not found the reason of her vocation, yet her true life had begun. She worked diligently under the direction of a master she loved, and her father, in his turn, delighted at the discovery of a talent so long hid, redoubled his efforts to advance his pupil and to make up for lost time.
Rosa worked for some months at copying in the Louvre, but though she worked with such diligence and skill as to win the praise of the director, she came, after a time, to feel that the mere copying of the works of other men, however great, was not the goal she was striving after; so one day she took a sudden determination, left the Louvre, packed up her painting materials, and started off for one of the rural suburbs of Paris, where she sat herself down to sketch from nature. Her love of animals, hitherto an aimless pleasure, now took on a new phase as she saw her beloved cows and sheep in their place in nature giving life and animation to the landscape.
In the winter season, when work out-of-doors was no longer pleasant or profitable, Rosa made what use she could of the few opportunities Paris had to offer for the study of animals. She spent what time she could spare from work at the horse-market; she visited the slaughter-houses, and the suburban fairs where cattle and horses, sheep and pigs compete for prizes, and in these places she filled her portfolios with sketches.
In 1840 she sent her first picture to the Salon, and as it was accepted and well received, she continued to send her work every year; but, up to 1849, her pictures were small, and had little more interest than belongs to simple studies from nature; 1849 was a memorable year to her, as it was to France. In this year her father died of cholera, just as he had been appointed director of the School of Design for Young Girls. Rosa was appointed to succeed him with the title of Honorary Directress, and her sister Juliette was made a teacher in the school. In the same year she exhibited the picture that may be said to have made her reputation with the artists and amateurs, as well as with the general public. This was her "Oxen of Cantal," a picture that combined with no little feeling for landscape the most admirable painting of cattle in repose. Its high qualities were immediately recognized. Horace Vernet, in the name of the Provisional Government, presented her with a handsome vase of Sèvres porcelain, and the gold medal for painting. In 1851, the jury selected for exhibition at the World's Fair in London another picture by Rosa, "Ploughing in the Nivernais," which made the artist's name known to England, where the national love of animals secured for her no end of praise and of substantial reward. In 1856 Rosa painted her most popular picture, "The Horse Fair," now in the Metropolitan Museum. This painting went from Paris to London, where it was bought for rising £1,500, and created such an interest in the artist's personality as would have turned the head of any ordinary woman; but Rosa Bonheur's whole life proves her no ordinary woman.
For many years Mlle. Bonheur lived in Paris in a house surrounded by a large garden where she kept a number of animals, partly for the pleasure of their companionship, partly for the opportunity it gave her of studying their habits, and using them as models. She now resides in the Château By, near Fontainebleau, where she leads the same industrious life in her advancing years that she did in the beginning of her career. She rises early, and works at her painting all day, and often spends the evening in drawing: for she takes but little interest in what is called society, and cares only for the companionship of her intimate friends, which she can enjoy without disarranging her life, or neglecting the studies she loves. She dresses with great simplicity at all times, and even when she accepts invitations, makes no concessions to the caprices of fashion. In her student-days, when visiting the abattoirs, markets, and fairs, she accustomed herself to wear such a modification of man's dress as would permit her to move about among rough men without compromising her sex. But, beside that her dignity was always safe in her own keeping, she bears testimony to the good manners and the good dispositions of the men she came in contact with. Rosa Bonheur has always been an honor to art and an honor to her sex. At seventy-two she finds herself in the enjoyment of many things that go to make a happy life. She has a well-earned fame as an artist; an abundant fortune gained by her own industry and used as honorably as it has been gained; and she has troops of friends drawn to her by her solid worth of character.
Of the great number of pictures Rosa Bonheur has painted, by far the most are of subjects found in France, but a few of the best were painted in Scotland. She has received many public honors in medals and decorations. In 1856, after painting the "Horse Fair," the Empress Eugénie visited her at her studio and bestowed upon her the Cross of the Legion of Honor, fastening the decoration to the artist's dress with her own hands. When the invading army of Prussia reached Paris, the Crown Prince gave orders that the studio of Rosa Bonheur should be respected. But though she, no doubt, holds all these honors at their worth, yet she holds still more dear the art to which she owes, not only these, but all that has made her life a treasury of happy remembrances.
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