When Rosa Bonheur Met Buffalo Bill 

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

Rosa, too, was already famous in the United States when Rosa’s agents, the Tedesco Frères and Roland Knoedler, aware of the artist’s slump since the traumatic loss of Natalie, arranged for her to personally meet Cody and his Lakota chiefs for lunch in his tent; they dined again at the elegant hunting lodge Pavillon d’Armenonville. Cody offered Rosa complete freedom to roam and photograph the camp and its people.  She sat with families, sketched bison, and watched the rodeos, cowboy chases, and Indian attacks. Along the way, she collected artifacts and clothing, most famously the Lakota moccasins, leggings, and beaded shirt that Cody reputedly gave her himself, in thanks for his portrait.

When Buffalo Bill visited her studio at Château de By, after lunch in fashionable Fontainebleau, Rosa wisely took the opportunity not only to study him, but to unload onto Cody—or rather present him—her two impossible mustangs, Apache and Clair de Lune. It’s said he immediately subdued them and took them away to join his Wild West show.   

Rosa Bonheur painting Buffalo Bill at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle

There is no doubt Buffalo Bill changed Rosa’s life.  Although she never visited America, the highest price ever paid in the United States for one of her paintings was her migrating bison, Émigration des Bisons—$773,500, in 2019.  Maybe she was recalling his world when she died, for one of the last unfinished paintings on her easel was of mustangs fleeing from a fire. 

And maybe she affected his:  When Cody’s home in North Platte caught fire and he lost nearly everything, Rosa Bonheur’s portrait of him was saved.  

Brooke Chilvers reminds readers that Rosa Bonheur’s Château de By in Thomery, near Fontainebleau, is now a museum devoted to the artist’s life and work.