Like many Europeans of her era, Rosa Bonheur was fascinated with the American West. She studied George Catlin’s sketches, corresponded with Albert Bierstadt, and collected photos from William Henry Jackson. When Buffalo Bill’s Wild West arrived for its performances in Paris in 1889, it became a high point of her life. For the next decade, she spoke frequently about it, and when she died in 1899 the newspapers mentioned her connection to Buffalo Bill.
At the time of Buffalo Bill’s visit, the most famous living painter in Europe was not Claude Monet, Henri Toulouse- Lautrec or even Vincent Van Gogh. It was Rosa Bonheur, who was known for her animal paintings. The Horse Fair, the title of which describes what it depicted, was considered her best work and helped earn her a place in the French Legion of Honor…the first woman so honored. She even had a menagerie of animal “models,” both living and dead, at her chateau near Paris. But it was her visits to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West that t inspired her to produce some of her only images of people.
She was particularly captivated by the Lakota Indian performers with the Wild West, spending hours observing them before sitting down to make sketches. She did paintings of Red Shirt and Rocky Bear, who were leaders of the 90-person contingent of Indians with the show. Altogether, Bonheur produced over 50 paintings and sketches of the Wild West. She spent so much time at the show that Buffalo Bill’s publicist John Burke later said, “The rest of her works wi ill undoubtedly be tinctured with the influence produced by our Wild West.” He was correct; the visits to t