Rosa Bonheur, Plowing in the Nivernais: The Dressing of Vines, 1849

12 Aug

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, many artists shared the belief that art should realistically and faithfully record everyday life. Due to a rapidly urbanizing Europe, the representations of peaceful and everyday country living became appealing and the careers of artists like Rosa Bonheur took off. During the 1820s and 1830s, art was dominated by the Académie des Beaux Arts and artists had to create history paintings (with subjects that were political, historical, or religious) in order to be successful. But after the 1830’s, there was a backlash against the Académie as artists began to test the limits of what they could get away with. Naturalism was one such challenge, albeit a subtle challenge as its characteristics were pastoral and inviting and not threatening.

Bonheur’s Plowing in the Nivernais: The Dressing of Vinesis not a history painting, but a scene of everyday life. However, it was accepted by the Académie because it is a clean and safe image of the French countryside and its people. This monumental oil on canvas depicts four farm hands, who pale in comparison to their powerfully large animals, plowing the French landscape. The dirt they have moved is thrust into the foreground while the rolling hillside in the background is pleasant and pastoral. The painting is classically composed with the oxen on the right balancing out the hillside on the left. The work the men and oxen perform does not give the viewer any sense of real work or hardships making this a comfortable and non-threatening image for the urban French viewer. Paintings like Plowing in the Nivernais: The Dressing of Vines helped shape the future of Modernism as it was the beginning of the backlash against the Académie and helped paved the way for Realism and Impressionism.


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