The Queen’s Gambit – Rosa Bonheur

Thanks to a recent wisdom tooth surgery, I got to spend three whole days doing nothing that pertained to school. It was a lovely break from the chaos of normal life! During this time I got to catch up on some television shows and movies that I haven’t let myself get invested in because of my workload. One of the fabulous television shows I dived headfirst into was The Queen’s Gambit, which is about a prodigy chess player named Beth Harmon. It deals with much more than chess, however, as it has themes of addiction, love, loss, life at an orphanage, and gender stereotypes. In case you won’t take a recommendation from me, Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 100% so definitely check it out on Netflix!!

I bring this show up because it name-dropped an artist I recently learned about in class! Beth’s adoptive mother, Alma, when showing Beth around the house for the first time pointed out the Rosa Bonheur prints on the living room walls. It was a pretty nerdy moment for me because I completely understood who Rosa Bonheur was, what type of paintings she did, and who in history appreciated her artwork. I excitedly told all of this to my dad (who then had to rewind the show a little bit) and felt that I understood a bit more about Beth’s new parents than I would have if I didn’t know who this artist was!

Inside the Wheatleys' House
Here you can see two Bonheur prints on either side of the fireplace!

Rosa Bonheur was a naturalist painter in the mid-1800s in France. She exhibited in Salons and was accepted with great merit by some. Emperor Napoleon III was especially fond of her work, thus she was known as the “Bonapartist animal painter.” Her huge paintings consisted of animals, often in motion or in the wild. While other Second Empire artists were painting in the Realist style, Bonheur’s works were apolitical. Thus, they instead fell under the Naturalist style. There was no comment in her works about the socioeconomic struggles gripping France’s working class, nor any mention of the vast wealth that the very upper class citizens held. Her paintings instead were non-confrontational, highly detailed, rustic grandeur paintings. Because she didn’t discuss the plights of the working class, Bonheur’s paintings upheld the superiority of the ruling class through omission.

This is an example of Bonheur’s highly detailed work!

While some upper class citizens loved her work, others criticized it for being one-dimensional. John Ruskin, a key art critic at the time, was especially critical of Bonheur’s skill (or lack thereof) of painting people. Her subject matter was pretty much strictly animals, and when she painted people, their faces were often turned from the viewer or blurred in the distance. Needless to say, Rosa Bonheur’s paintings are done in great detail and skill and are widely accessible to those who look at them. There isn’t a hidden meaning of political commentary that one must have knowledge of in order to “understand” Bonheur’s work, or any sort of emotional struggle within the artist that is being expressed in her paintings. There are just some beautiful horses, sheep, and cows to look at in scenes of rustic grandeur! It definitely makes sense for Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley to own prints of her work in The Queen’s Gambit.

Here are a few pictures that I took while watching the show to show you the prints! I apologize for the poor quality, but you can see the Wild Cat print behind Alma Wheatley, a horse print in the foyer, and the two prints beside the fireplace. I love finding art history connections in television and film and this one was so fun to spot!! Have a great week! 🙂

Featured Image Images not provided with sources were taken from Netflix.

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