Catalog of the Fine Arts Collection
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Thomas Waterman Wood (1823-1903), American
Plowing in the Nivernais, undated copy
Rosa Bonheur was among the most celebrated women artists of the nineteenth century, and Plowing in the Nivernais, which she sent to the Paris Salon of 1849, remains one of her best known compositions. Under the newly established democratic government of France's Second Republic, realist painters including Bonheur gained a new mandate to treat subjects other than the high-minded allegories and historical scenes that had previously dominated the official Salons. Plowing in the Nivernais captured her contemporaries' imagination and became a touchstone of critical and artistic discourse for the duration of the century, as this later copy by Thomas Waterman Wood suggests. Wood's painting is less than half the size of the original composition, yet it retains a sense of the ennobling monumentality with which Bonheur invested her laboring subjects.
One source cited for Bonheur's painting is a story by the realist author George Sand, The Devil's Pool (1846). The artist was reportedly listening to someone read aloud from Sand's novel as she contemplated her next work, when she heard this passage: "My attention was next caught by a fine spectacle, a truly noble subject for a painter. At the other end of the field a fine-looking youth was driving a magnificent team of four pairs of young oxen, through whose somber coats glanced a ruddy, glowlike flame. They had short, curly heads that belong to the wild bull, the same large, fierce eyes and jerky movements; they worked in an abrupt, nervous way that showed how they still rebelled against the yoke and goad and trembled with anger as they obeyed the authority so recently imposed...." Impressed by Sand's masterful description, Bonheur later said that she set out "to celebrate with my brush the art of tracing the furrows from which comes the bread that nourishes humanity."