The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur



Initial Thoughts about the Work

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This painting by Rosa Bonheur intrigued me upon seeing it. The details in the work are so exceptional that it actually appears like an actual photo. The horses, people, and even the trees are so remarkably detailed. One can clearly see the horses’ eyes. The expressions of the horse handlers can be clearly seen. The painting appears to depict some kind of chaos in an open public area involving shouting of men, the neighing of horses, and the noise from the horses’ movements. The men appear to be struggling to control the horses which are moving towards a certain place. I also think the dressing code signifies an earlier time. For me, the aspect that is most interesting about this painting is the detail of the work, from the horseshoes to the horse eyes and the people’s facial expressions. The painter was highly skilled in painting.


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The Historical Context

The horse fair painting is dated to the 1850s in Paris, France (Saslow, 2018). During this time, the City of Paris was at the height of its glory, given that it was considered the largest city in Europe (De Vries, 2018). Additionally, it was recognized as one of the leading centers for the arts (De Vries, 2018). Another notable event for France at the time was the French revolution which ushered in a new era under Napoleon (Edwards, 2017). Art, being a mirror of the society also experienced some changes following these occurrences. Before the revolution in 1848, art was heavily romanticized as artists did not depict society as it was (Edwards, 2017). However, given the political issues that France was facing, artists started a movement where their works depicted both the beauty and the ugliness of the society rather than hiding the bad. This is the realism movement (Carrick, 2017). It is in this period that Rosa painted her works. It was also a period that marked great contributions to arts by Women artists. This was, however, not an easy feat for the women given that there was a great gender bias in the arts in Paris at the time. They, therefore, had to come up with tactics which enabled them to navigate the art world including the art galleries and the museums (Hyde & Milam, 2017).

The artist behind the painting ‘The Horse Fair’, Rosa Bonheur, was born as Marie-Rosalie Bonheur. She lived through 1822-1899 (Saslow, 2018). She was credited as one of the most famous female painters with great contributions in animal paintings. Her use of realism is also very notable. Rosa’s expertise in painting was molded by her parents at an early age who were very encouraging (Saslow, 2018). In fact, his father and siblings were painters. Her stay in Paris enabled her to study different domesticated animals which gave her insights into the details of these animals. Bonheur’s personal life was in a way controversial given her choice to wear male clothing in a time when the dressing code was strictly observed. Although she claimed that this was to allow her to draw the painting without attracting much attention from passersby, she would later admit that she enjoyed the freedom the dressing gave her (Saslow, 2018).

Insights from the Author’s Biography

A look at the ‘Horse Fair’ Painting reflects details about Rosa’s life. Her perfection in painting the horses is due to long years in animal studies and a lot of practice in the art of painting animals. This can explain why the horse features are so detailed rather than having sketches that are seen in other paintings. Another insight is the realistic nature of the painting, given that Rosa did this work at a time when romanticism was coming to an end. The realism in this painting is, therefore, a reflection of a time when artists were depicting their art without trying to hide the flaws in society. The notable realistic features include the wide eye opening by the horses. One of the riders can also be clearly seen raising a big cane about to hit a horse. Some of the horses can be observed to be neighing loudly in the midst of the chaos. These are all details that may not have been captured during the romanticism era. During her life, Rosa was not happy about the way men seemed to dominate the society while the women were sidelined (Saslow, 2018). This is perhaps the reason why she depicted the painting full of men, to show how women did not have much of a place in public life.


The theme that is mostly explored in this work is that of gender inequality. The Horse Fair depicts a society where the woman has no place in public life and instead lives her life in the background. This can be observed in the painting where it is an all men’s affair. Research shows that Bonheur had to dress as a man to work on the painting as women were not allowed in the fair (Saslow, 2018). The men, on the other side, are depicted as being in control of the horses which can be translated to how they were also in control of the society including the economy and the politics. The painting can, therefore, be viewed as an attempt by Rosa to rebel against this vice of gender bias. Through the painting, she proved that a woman could do what men could do even better. This was not the view at the time. By driving this theme of gender inequality, Rosa was able to pave way for other women and eventually ushered in a society that embraced gender equality.

Relevance for Today’s Audience

The Horse Fair painting is still in exhibition up to date. For contemporary society, it is a reminder for the audience that women are equal to men. If Rosa was able to paint such a masculine work in great detail, then women are surely capable of great things. Through this painting, today’s audience is encouraged to appreciate the great achievements as well as the remarkable capabilities of women. The Horse fair painting drives the message of gender equality.



I have gained a deeper understanding of this analysis. For instance, I now know that the reason for the details in the painting is due to the animal studies Rosa undertook in her earlier life. The expressions of the people and the horses are as a result of the use of realism in the painting. Another thing that I have learned is that Rosa intended to communicate a message of gender bias through the painting as a means of rebelling against the position that women had been placed in society at the time


De Vries, J. (2018). Patterns of urbanization in pre—industrial Europe, 1500–1800. In Patterns of European Urbanisation Since 1500 (pp. 79-109). Routledge.

Carrick, J. (2017). Nouveau R-isme, 1960s France, and the Neo-avant-garde: Topographies of Chance and Return. Routledge.

Edwards, S. (2017). Bi-Centennial Literature on Art and the French Revolution. In Communards and Other Cultural Histories (pp. 115-123). BRILL.

Hyde, M., & Milam, J. (2017). Women, art and the politics of identity in eighteenth-century Europe. Routledge.

Saslow, J. M. (2018). “Disagreeably Hidden”: Construction and Constriction of the Lesbian Body in Rosa Bonheur’s Horse Fair. In The Expanding Discourse (pp. 186-205). Routledge.


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