One of the joys of working at, and visiting, Sudley House is the chance to see, nestling amongst paintings by the likes of Turner, Gainsborough and Reynolds, paintings by a number of 19th century artists less familiar to the average visitor, but whose work and personal stories I often find both surprising and inspiring.
George Holt, the 19th century ship owner and philanthropist whose collection of artwork Sudley is home to, saw it as his duty to support contemporary British artists. However, his collection also includes a number of beautiful paintings by artists from mainland Europe. With European Day of Languages approaching on 26 September, I thought it apt here to celebrate the work of one such artist, and in particular a painting for which 2016 marks its 150th anniversary.
Considered by many to be the foremost female artist of the 19th century, Rosa Bonheur is best remembered for her paintings of animals. In a male-dominated era she achieved a level of success rare for a women artist. Determined as well as talented, she went to extreme lengths in order to achieve her ambitions, on occasion disguising herself as a man in order to gain access to events such as horse auctions in order to make studies from life.
Sudley is fortunate indeed to have two fine Rosa Bonheur pieces in our collection – ‘The Return from the Mill’, featured in our LGBT collections, and ‘Sheep and Lambs’ – and it is this latter piece that celebrates its 150th birthday this year, painted a year after Bonheur became the first female artist to be awarded the prestigious Grand Cross of the Légion d’honneur.
A relatively small painting (approximately 33 x 43.5 cm) in oils on panel, I am drawn to this work not for its subject matter, but for the beautiful and skilled manner in which it is rendered. The artist’s delicate brushwork is a delight to experience at close quarters. Her varied touch allows the sensuous depiction of textures ranging from grass to wool, which is particularly skilfully painted using tiny opaque brushmarks to suggest the texture of the animals’ woollen coats. Thin applications of paint elsewhere – for example in the sky – appear to allow the brushmarks of the priming layer to add contrasting levels of texture. I find the overall effect quite exquisite.
So, if my schoolboy French is correct, I hope I might propose a toast to Rosa Bonheur as European Day of Languages approaches and on the 150th anniversary of ‘Sheep and Lambs’ to say “je vous remercie pour les belles peintures!”
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