The celebrated 19th century French painter and sculptor Rosa Bonheur was known for wearing men’s pants, shirts, and ties, as well as participating in traditionally masculine activities such as hunting and smoking. She lived with her lifelong partner, Nathalie Micas (left in photo), for over 40 years, eventually in a castle near Fontainebleau that she had purchased with her earnings as a painter. They lived with a menagerie of farm animals, dogs, cats, and birds—as well as a tamed lioness named Fathma.
Micas’s death in June 1889 coincided with the arrival of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in Paris, as part of the Exposition Universelle, an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille and featuring the debut of the Eiffel Tower. In an effort to distract her from the tragedy of her partner’s death, Bonheur’s art dealer arranged for her to visit the event. At the time, Bonheur was likely the most famous living painter in Europe.
The American showman William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody had founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1883. The show featured a large company of performers—including many Native Americans and famous historical western figures like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane —who would demonstrate horseback riding and sharpshooting skills, as well as staging simulations of “wild west” scenes like the riding of the Pony Express, Native American attacks on wagon trains, and stagecoach robberies.
Bonheur and Cody connected. Bonheur was installed as the artist-in-residence of the show, completing seventeen paintings during her stay, including portraits of of Red Shirt and Rocky Bear, the leaders of the 90-person contingent of Native Americans with the show. She offered to paint Cody’s portrait for free—a favor worth 30,000 francs at the time (about $150,000 in 2020). The portrait would go on to be incorporated into countless posters and programs, including the one above featuring Napoleon, Cody, and Bonheur seated at her easel.
Cody was apparently a supporter of women’s rights. He supported women’s suffrage and is quoted as saying “What we want to do is give women even more liberty than they have. Let them do any kind of work they see fit, and if they do it as well as men, give them equal pay.” (I can’t find a good source for this quotation, however.)
His attitude toward Native Americans was problematic. On one hand, he is seen as “enlightened on questions of race and equality” (source) and critical of white hypocrisy: “Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the Government” (source), but his Wild West show included racist portrayals of Native Americans, such as an attack on a settler cabin in which Cody would ride in with an entourage of cowboys to rescue the white settlers. Given the huge popularity of the show, these kinds of portrayals would go on to have a wide influence on the representations of Native Americans in popular culture.
Bonheur is quoted as saying “I have a veritable passion…for this unfortunate race, and I deplore that it is disappearing before the White usurpers”—but I have not found a reliable source for this either.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World: Courier Litho. Co., Buffalo, N.Y. (c 1896)
Nathalie Micas and Rosa Bonheur (1864)
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Rosa Bonheur, Chief Rocky Bear, Chief Red Shirt, William “Broncho Bill” Irving, Roland Knoedler, and Benjamin Tedesco at the Paris Exposition Universelle (1889)
Rosa Bonheur: Col. William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) (1889)
Rosa Bonheur: Moutons au bord de la Mer (1865)