Lecture 005 Reading – “Disagreeably Hidden”: Construction and Constriction of the Lesbian Body in
Rosa Bonheur’s Horse Fair (James M. Saslow)
- Bonheur’s art offers, more than has previously been understood, a radical intervention in
the visual and cultural construction of 19 century femininity and masculinity.
- Her style, both in her work and her life, represented an alternative vision of the modern
female body, and specifically the lesbian body, as a social and visual entity.
o Limited in scope and self-consciousness during a period that spanned a major
change in the social discourse about women, homosexuality, and gender difference.
- She affected a masculine style of dress and grooming, which occasioned much public
comment. Although she always insisted that this gender-deviant costume was chosen only
to facilitate her work, the fact that she work it for many other activities for which it was
neither necessary nor accepted suggests that it had a meaning for her transcending the
- Argued that the human faces in Horse Fair were hidden; although the human and personal
element is indeed “disagreeably hidden”, it is not suppressed as completely as previously
assumed. To the extent that such hiding was forced upon her by social conventions over
which she had little control, we have evidence that it was disagreeable to Bonheur herself,
that she sought to envision alternative models of culture, and that the limited self-revelation
she did manage was later received with appreciative enthusiasm by activists who were
working more overtly to change cultural attitudes.
- It has not been previously noticed that the central horse tamer, whose head is next to the
rearing white horse, is a self-portrait of Bonheur, who confronts the viewer with the male
guise she adopted for her sketching forays in these very stockyards.
o This figure is one of only two among all these males not sporting any of the
customary mid-Victorian facial hair.
o Moreover, she is the only figure who looks out at the viewer: her pose is the
traditional indicator of a self-portrait.
- To understand these infrequent but unique self-portrayals, as well as their general absence,
her work and life must be interpreted together within a wider context of sex, gender, and
- Bonheur lived in a period of transition during which limitations on women, especially
lesbians, remained strong, and the intellectual framework for modern gay and lesbian
identity and the sub-culture aimed a justifying its expression were just beginning to be
- Analysis of Bonheur’s attempts at self-portraiture will suggest three principle themes:
o Her masculine attire was an attempt to claim male prerogatives and create an
androgynous and proto-lesbian visual identity that would embody, literally and
figuratively, her social and sexual views.
o Her coded representation of this identity in her pictures reveals her work as more
socially engaged and subversive than originally thought.
o The relative absence of human subjects from her work can be read as a
displacement of interest from what could not be fully imagined in public onto an
alternative subject matter that provided some scope for symbolizing nonconformist
ideas about nature that justified Bonheur’s own sexual and gender identity. - The works created within this circle of power and influence reveal the sharp contrasts in
outlook between Bonheur and the class that both dictated socially acceptable gender
behaviour and strongly influenced her representation of such behaviour.
- Although there are portraits that are exactly contemporary with The Horse Fair, in the public
fantasy of art they supported images that idealized women of their class as passively