2019 Coeur d’Alene Art Auction / Lot 24826 / 328  •  View Catalog  •   • 

Rosa Bonheur (1822 – 1899)
Emigration de Bisons (Amérique) (1897)
tempera and pastel on canvas
44 × 74 inches
signed and dated lower left

Label, National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, WY, Loan from James Mitchell, 10-25-96

A description of the painting written by the artist (in French, shown) will accompany the lot.

The Artist
Georges Petit, Paris, France 1897
Not traced for almost a century
The John J. “Jack” Mitchell Collection by 1973
Present owners, by descent

Galerie Petit, Paris, July 1897
National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, WY, Oct 25, 1996 to Oct 25(?), 2002


Having spent hours trying to trace Bison in the Snow in my extensive Bonheur archive, accumulated over decades, I came to the conclusion that the title, an obvious one, may not have been the original title. A painting of this size, signed and dated by the artist, could not have fallen through the cracks. By signing a painting in full and dating it, Bonheur was always implying that the work was a major one, the conclusion of a long process of elaboration. Like all academic painters she worked in atelier from sketches, drawings, “calques” (tracing) that were used as the basis for large, composed scenes, such as this one. She left numerous drawing studies at her death. Many bear the seal Rosa Bonheur added after her death by her executor before being sold, some bear her monogram, others are unsigned. Only large paintings and drawings, and those she considered important, are fully signed and dated. This work was not sold at the Sale of the Artist’s atelier, held by the Galerie Petit in 1900: the catalog’s staggering 1910 entries, in two volumes, doesn’t list any piece remotely similar to this painting. At this point, in a quandary, I went back to the biography written by the artist’s end of life companion, the American portrait painter Anna Klumpke (1856-1942), still a major source of information. Perusing through her list of “Oeuvres Principales” (most important works) I encountered a “pastel” Emigration de bison (Amérique), exhibited at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1897 among the works of artists represented by the gallery with a reference to a page number of the exhibition catalog (p.428). Fully convinced that it was this painting, I only needed confirmation of the measurements. The information came from the Schriver’s checklist of paintings in American Collections (1982) in which Ms. Schriver states: “Santa Barbara. The Museum mentions a pastel, 44”x 74”, in a private collection.”

Even though Rosa Bonheur never traveled to the USA, the mythology of the American West and a fascination for the Great Plains loom large in her thinking and iconography. In 1889, at the Paris Exposition Universelle she met Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917) who was parading bison and Indians in his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, a circus-like extravaganza that provided fanciful stage reenacting of the struggles between Indians and white settlers of the Great Plains. The show had toured for three decades in America before startling crowds in Paris and other European venues. By then Cody was the most famous American man in the world, a living legend, symbol of the self-made entrepreneur, chivalrous and courtly who was at ease with royalty and comfortable with cowboys, feted by people of all walks of life. Rosa, who normally had contempt for the male sex, was enchanted with him and a friendship developed. She visited his encampments several times, studying Sitting Bull and Native Americans of the show and sketching bison live. He sat for a portrait from her, which is today part of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and later he sent her a stallion that she kept in her menagerie and on which she liked to ride. Through Buffalo Bill she had dinner with two Indian Chiefs, Rocky-Beard and Red-Shirt. She later dedicated an entire body of drawings, watercolors, sketches and more elaborate compositions to the “Peaux Rouges.” Less numerous are the studies of bison and paintings of this animal, but they still constituted an important point of interest for her.

In his youth, Cody had been infamous as the most successful bison killer who decimated the wild herds of the Great Plains to feed the construction crews of the Union Pacific Railroad. He is known to have slaughtered 4,280 heads. By 1889 the entire bison count for the US and Canada was alleged to be down to five hundred and forty-one bison. By a curious twist of fate Buffalo Bill became their advocate and campaigned for their protection in their natural habitat. He became instrumental in the creation of the American Bison Society.

This painting illustrates the bison’s return to their natural habitat after having been raised on ranches. It addresses the effort to transform an endangered species into the quintessential symbol of the Great Plains’ rugged world. Even though Rosa Bonheur deplored the greed of the white man who was destroying Native Americans, she believed in Manifest Destiny, according to which God had destined the United States to expand its dominion and spread democracy to the entire North American continent. She viewed the Great Plains as a sort of sacred ground where the forces of nature embody endless freedom and the struggle to maintain it. The magic of this painting, with its infinite frozen space and the force of a herd in motion, is informed by this mythology.

A sense of infinity permeates the work. The clumps of shrubs, which to the right and the left of the composition enliven the foreground are the famous sage-brush of the wild plains. With her attention to detail and belief that realism could be achieved only by referencing with exactitude certain characteristic elements of reality, Rosa had to obtain fresh plants of sagebrush from the western desert to be able to describe it in her paintings. As for the bison, of course, she had studied them a decade earlier in Buffalo Bill’s encampment.

Here the medium itself is particularly rich. A painted ground of tempera or gouache laid with brushes of various widths renders the translucent blue sky and the vivid expanse of the snow-covered ground. The white of that snow vibrates with warmer tones evoking an intensely luminous landscape. Staunchly academic, believing in the supremacy of drawing over painting, of line over color, Rosa had nevertheless assimilated the Impressionists’ lesson. The cast shadows are rendered in bluish tones that enhance the luminosity of the landscape. On that painted ground the beasts and the sage brush are drawn in an extremely nervous and free graphic style based on the line. Charcoal, pastels, white chalks, applied with cursory strength define the forms, masses or details. The bison’s eyes, their coats, their horns come to life. We are confronted with her sequential analysis of the image and it allows the herd to unfold in front of our eyes. The compact, almost formless mass of the herd advancing toward us from the left part of the composition, coexists with three bison portraits in the middle ground, parallel to the horizon. The expression of their faces is so movingly rendered that we sense their frustration at not being able to graze the snow-covered ground. The contrast between the moving herd as an indistinct mass of forms and the vivid presence of these three animals is one of the most fascinating elements of this painting. The chaos and bewilderment of the migrating beasts is fully conveyed.

A study of the three bison group, entitled A Herd of Bison in the Snow was published by Theodore Stanton in 1910 with the caption: “Few years before her death, Rosa Bonheur exhibited at the Petit Gallery, a series of pastels, one of which was devoted to bison. The picture given here was one of the preliminary studies for the more complete work.” I have not been able to find this study whose existence, however, gives some insight in Bonheur’s work method.

Prof. Dott. Annie-Paule Quinsac PhD, New York, May 20, 2019


Rosa Bonheur

1822 – 1899

Emigration de Bisons (Amérique) (1897)
tempera and pastel on canvas
44 × 74 inches
signed and dated lower left
Sold at Auction: $773,500
Condition ReportAs viewed through glass. Canvas appears to be in good condition. Colors are bright.

Important Notice: Statements of condition are provided as a service to potential bidders; such statements are educated opinions and should not be regarded as facts. The Coeur d’Alene Art Auction has no responsibility for any errors or omissions.