Featured Artist

Transatlantic Cow-incidence?

By Published On: March 4th, 2024

A recent visit to the Dutchess County Historical Society has haunted me. In a good way. I was so impressed with the amount of information there about anything and everything Dutchess County, a reservoir of resources dating back over 100 years, that I haven’t stopped thinking about it. While I was there to write about the DCHS for last month’s issue of Main Street Magazine, I couldn’t help but notice some paintings that were part of an exhibition called Fertile Ground: The Hudson Valley Animal Paintings of Caroline Clowes. I was so glad that Bill Jeffway, the DCHS executive director, gave me the printed catalog for the exhibition. It’s been on my desk, and I look and marvel at it every day.

A connective thread

I was also recently at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA. I hadn’t been in years, and it was a great trip for an overcast and chilly day in January. There were two wonderful exhibitions that featured works on paper and of course the extensive permanent collection. I stumbled upon a work by the French artist Rosa Bonheur, and I was immediately reminded of Caroline Clowes. Off to the Internet I went, and as I learned more about each of these 19th century painters of livestock and other animals in beautiful country settings, I started wondering if these two women, working on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, might have possibly known of each other – or may have even been in touch.

Two lives, two worlds

The theme for this, the March issue, is animals and farms, so I couldn’t resist asking if I could write about the works – and lives – of these women – who were both born in March! Thank you, Thorunn, for saying yes.

• Caroline Morgan Clowes: March 3, 1838 – November 16, 1904

• Rosa Bonheur: March 16, 1822 – May 25, 1899

They were born 13 days and 16 years apart, Rosa (Marie-Rosalie Bonheur) in Bordeaux, France, and Caroline (Caroline Morgan Clowes) in Hempstead, Long Island. 

Both took earnestly to their art as teenagers, smitten with animals as their subject matter. Both exhibited in high-profile places at fairly young ages. Clowes’s work was at the National Academy of Design by 1865 (age 29); Bonheur had a painting shown at the Paris Salon when she was just 19 (1841). 

While from very different backgrounds, both were independent women whose art was their first love. Neither married. Both afforded houses paid for by sales of their paintings. Both painted and drew animals in ways that are as evocative and personal now as they were over a century ago.

Clowes’s upbringing

Caroline Clowes’s early years were tragic. She was the second daughter, William Jones Clowes and Elizabeth Ann Hart. They were married in 1834. Lydia was born in 1836 and Caroline in 1838. The family moved to a farm in remote Sullivan County in 1839 hoping William could earn a living on the land. On Christmas Eve, 1840, Elizabeth died giving birth to a third daughter, who didn’t survive a year. In 1851, it was decided by extended family members that Lydia and Caroline should find homes elsewhere. Lydia, then 15, went to Virginia. Caroline was sent to Heartsease farm in LaGrange, Dutchess County, where her uncle Benjamin on her mother’s side had six children about her age. 

For Christmas that year, 1851, Caroline’s aunt gave her a gift of drawing books and the promise of lessons. She attended the prestigious Poughkeepsie Female Collegiate Institute and started private lessons with Frederic Rondel, a French artist who was in Poughkeepsie to work on commissions for Mathew Vassar. Rondel was an accomplished landscape painter and is best known as a teacher to Winslow Homer. 

Clowes later studied under Henry Van Ingen, the first professor of art and art history at Vassar College. In 1872, a studio was constructed for her at Heartsease. She came to know Federal Point in Florida through her uncle’s investment of land in the state, and in the late 1860s, bought her own land there, where she had a working orange grove and a studio. 

Reaching new heights

Clowes’s big career break came while her painting Cattle at the Brook was featured at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, which was also the first official World’s Fair held in the US. It drew international attention. There was a gallery at the Exhibition featuring just the work of women artists, but Clowes’s piece hung in the main gallery alongside works by Albert Bierstadt, John LaFarge, Sanford Gifford, and other well-known artists of the time. 

While Clowes seems to hold a particular fondness for cows, she also painted sheep and horses in the landscapes she knew from living in the Hudson Valley. In the catalog created for the exhibit, Fertile Ground, at the DCHS, Caroline Culp, PhD, adjunct assistant professor at Vassar College, notes, “It was, in fact, paintings of cattle in their many and varied attitudes that helped Clowes establish herself as one of the first professional female artists in the Hudson Valley.” The income generated from sales of her work “allowed Clowes to remain comfortably self-sufficient – and unmarried – all her life,” Culp added. “Self-directed and self-driven, Clowes overcame innumerable obstacles faced by women in the constrictive society of 19th century America. She did so by finding a certain rare beauty in the cattle she observed in her backyard.”

Clowes’s works were exhibited in New York City and in and around Poughkeepsie, and some paintings on china were exhibited at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1879. She passed away peacefully at Heartsease in 1904, at the fairly young age of 64.

Bonheur’s background

Bonheur was born in March of 1822 into a creative family in Bordeaux, France. Her father was a painter of landscapes and portraits, and her mother taught piano. Rosa was the first born. She had three younger siblings, all of whom were successful artists, all taught by their father, Raimond, and all of whose subjects were animals. Raimond Bonheur introduced Rosa to the Saint Simeon Society as a child. This group was unconventional in its societal beliefs, and Raimond encouraged Rosa’s independence. She was a tomboy as a child, exploring nature freely. 

“I became an animal painter because I loved to move among animals,” Bonheur is quoted as saying, “I would study an animal and draw it in the position it took, and when it changed to another position, I would draw that.” 

The family moved to Paris in 1829, when Rosa was seven. Four years later, her father abandoned the family, and her mother died. Rosa moved in with family friends, the Micas, and occasionally lived with her father. She never stopped drawing and painting, and she still focused on animals, venturing to farms outside of Paris to study them close up.

Subject matter and notoriety

Paintings of animals weren’t considered particularly collection-worthy in France at the time, and Bonheur started selling her works on the private market abroad. They became quite popular with the English, who admired her attention to detail and connection to her subjects and their surroundings. 

The painting that catapulted Bonheur’s career was The Horse Fair, completed in 1855. It’s a massive painting (over sixteen feet long and eight feet high), depicting a horse market in Paris with an energy and expressiveness reminiscent more of a battle scene than an average market day. The piece was scooped up by an art dealer and changed hands a few times before being bought by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who acquired it at auction in 1887 for what was considered an exorbitant amount at the time – over $50,000. Vanderbilt was the brother of Frederick William Vanderbilt, who built the mansion in Hyde Park, NY. Cornelius immediately donated the piece to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. 

I can’t imagine that this occurrence in the international art world would not have come to Clowes’s attention. She would have been four years into her art lessons by then, surely seeking out and soaking up potential influencers. Clowes studied under a Frenchman early on. Would he have known about The Horse Fair or other works by Rosa Bonheur? 

Bonheur’s Bohemia

Bonheur was a presence in and out of the art world. While her work was described as “traditional in nature,” her personal life, by Victorian standards especially, was quite unconventional. Bonheur defied gender expectations, wearing her hair short, learning how to shoot a gun, riding astride instead of sidesaddle, and rolling her own cigarettes, which she smoked profusely (a habit considered disrespectable for women in the mid-1800s). She spent a lot of time outdoors and wanted to wear pants, which were forbidden for women. She applied for a cross-dressing permit from the French prefecture – something given for medical or health reasons only – and she got one in 1857. Some claim she was a symbol for the emancipation of lesbians, living like a man and having lifelong friendships with women who lived with her. She championed gender equality for herself and her art, saying, “Women should seek to establish their rights by good and great works, not by conventions,” but whether she was a lesbian has been disputed. Again, defying conventions, she emphatically declared, “I wed art. It is my husband – my world – my life-dream – the air I breathe.”

Art above all

Bonheur’s legacy wasn’t just her lifestyle, however. It really was her art. A 2020 article in Smithsonian magazine said, “There were other female painters in her day, but none like Bonheur. Shattering female convention, she painted animals in lifelike, exacting detail, as big and wild as she wanted, studying them in their natural, mud-and-odor-filled settings. That she was a woman with a gift for self-promotion contributed to her celebrity – and her notoriety. … Her paintings brought her colossal fame and fortune during her lifetime. She was sought after by royals, statesmen, and celebrities. Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III, arrived unannounced at the château one day and was so impressed with Bonheur’s work that she returned to pin the medal of Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur on the painter’s bosom. Bonheur was the first woman to receive the honor for achievement in the arts. “Genius has no sex,” the empress declared. (In 1894, Bonheur was raised to the rank of officier.)… A porcelain doll was made in her image and sold at Christmas. A variegated red rose was named after her.” 

In the fall of 2022, the prestigious Musee d’Orsay in Paris exhibited a retrospective of Bonheur’s work on the bicentennial of her birth – the first major show of hers in Paris for a century. An article in The New York Times about the retrospective was headlined, “Rich, Famous and Then Forgotten: The Art of Rosa Bonheur.” The gorgeous piece, Plowing in the Nivernais was among the nearly 200 works on display. Completed in 1849, it was commissioned by the French government and won a gold medal at the Paris Salon that year. 

Heartsease in Paris

Next time I go to Paris I will be sure to plan a visit to the Château de Rosa Bonheur at 12 rue Rosa Bonheur in Thomery on the edge of the Fountainbleu Forest. It’s a long way from Heartsease in LaGrange in Dutchess County, but I know I will find the kindred spirit of Caroline Clowes there, and whether it’s true or not, I like to believe these two exceptional artists – and women – influenced each other, admired each other, and maybe even knew each other personally. And I like to imagine them in the company of their beloved animals, whose spirits live on in their beautiful art.

Postscript: When I reached out to the DCHS for permission to reprint Clowes’s paintings for this article, Bill Jeffway sent me photos of two cartes de visites that were among Clowes’s things. One is a photo of Rosa Bonheur, the other is a photo of her painting, “Morning in the Highland.” Both are signed by Bonheur! Et voila – the transatlantic cow-incidence is real. What a happy ending for this story and even more incentive to visit the Château de Rosa Bonheur. • 

While the exhibition “Fertile Ground: The Hudson Valley Animal Paintings of Caroline Clowes” is no longer on display at the DCHS, you can view the works and learn more about the art and artist at www.dchsny.org/fertile-ground-01.