When Rosa Bonheur Met Buffalo Bill 

Portrait of Col. William F. Cody (1889), by Rosa Bonheur

by Brooke Chilvers

That Picasso and Matisse knew each other, were even friends and often rivals, seems plausible enough.  But that female animalier artist Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899)—the most commercially successful French artist of the 19th century—should meet up with the Hon. W. F. Cody (1846–1917) is certainly one of art history’s most unlikely encounters.  The result of that rendezvous would be her remarkable equestrian portraits of Buffalo Bill, and of the Oglala Lakota chiefs Rocky Bear and Red Shirt who accompanied him to Paris, as well as her multiple paintings of American mustangs and bison.  

While America’s most famous soldier, hunter, and showman. Buffalo Bill, was busy exterminating 4,282 bison (within 18 months in 1867-68), taking Russian Grand Duke Alexis on a heavily staged hunt to kill one (1872), and scalping a Cheyenne warrior (1876) to personally avenge George Custer’s death, Rosa was living (since 1859) in her own Château de By on the edge of the Fontainebleau forest, some 50 miles south of Paris, along with her menagerie of farm, barnyard and wild animals, including her lioness, Fathma, and with mustangs given to her by American admirer and horse breeder, Mark Wentworth Dunham.  And with Mlle. Natalie Micas (1824–1889), her female companion and second pair of hands for 53 years. 

Postcard from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West with Rosa Bonheur.

Already in 18th century France, intellectuals often had a soft spot for America’s pristine wilderness and “noble savages” as promulgated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), and later by Chateaubriand’s romantic trilogy of North American Indians, starting with Atala (1801).  This is the stuff Rosa Bonheur was raised on. She was also likely familiar with George Catlin’s 1845 Indian Gallery exhibition in Paris and his Ojibwa troupe’s performances. 

Cody founded his Wild West touring show in 1883, and took it to Great Britain in 1887, Queen Victoria’s celebratory Golden Jubilee year.  Some 2.5 million tickets were sold for its 300 performances, including several commanded by the Queen. 

By the time Buffalo Bill Cody debarked the steamship Persian Monarch in Le Havre for the 1889 Paris Exposition universelle, marking the unveiling of  La tour Eiffel and the 100-year anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Rosa had long been collecting postcards, prints, and photos of American wildlife and native Americans.  Accuracy was so important to her as an artist that she once asked her American devotee, and end-of-life companion, artist Anna Klumpke (1856–1942), to stop the train on her trip to San Francisco and gather samples of sagebrush.  

Buffalo Bill Cody, Rosa Bonheur, Chief Rocky Bear, Chief Red Shirt, and others at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle.

For his first of what would become eight European tours, including two to France, Buffalo Bill’s camp in Neuilly consisted of 186 horses, 25 mustangs, 20 bison, eight Eskimo dogs, 48 cowboys (of whom 16 were musicians), 115 Indians “including squaws ad papooses,” tents, wagons and stagecoaches, donkeys, elk and deer, vaqueros, cooks, managers, aids, wranglers, interpreters, and pretty gals who could ride and shoot, including Annie Oakley.