June 14, 1969, seems to have been a warm, sunny day in Minneapolis. Which was lucky, given that the MIA chose to uncrate Rosa Bonheur’s Horse Fair, perhaps her most famous painting, outside the museum. It’s not the usual protocol—then or now. But what a wonderfully strange insider experience for the gentleman and young boy on the right, and anyone else happening by when the painting—all 96¼ by 199½ inches of it—was taken out of the truck.
The painting had come from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, and was hung as part of “The Past Rediscovered: French Painting 1800–1900,” an exhibition that ran at the MIA from July 3 to September 7 that summer. About 100 paintings came from more than 50 lenders throughout the United States and Europe, displayed alongside some of the MIA’s own French treasures.
The plein air unveiling seems not to have been a publicity stunt. The packing crate lies on the ground, too large and heavy to get through the door with the painting still in it. The museum’s modern wing wouldn’t be added until 1974, and the original 1915 McKim, Mead, and White building must have presented a few challenges for receiving a painting this large. So the MIA had little choice but to unpack it in a driveway on the west side of the building.
The Horse Fair, although exhibited widely after it was shown at the Paris Salon of 1853, has only left the Met one other time since 1969; it traveled to Bordeaux in 1997 for a Bonheur retrospective in her birthplace. The exhibition at the Salon was a great triumph for Bonheur. The painting was subsequently purchased by an American collector in 1857, became one of the most celebrated works of the century, and contributed to Bonheur’s financial and critical success both at home and in the United States. In 1887 it was given to the Met by Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had acquired it that same year.
Such success for a woman was almost unheard of during her time. But Rosa Bonheur was no ordinary woman. She rejected contemporary gender roles, cut her hair short, and carried a certificate from the police department allowing her to cross-dress (permission de travestissement). By wearing men’s pants, she hoped to go unnoticed at male-dominated horse fairs, stockyards, and slaughterhouses where she did exacting sketches of animal anatomy.
In 1992 the MIA acquired one of Bonheur’s smallest works, a painter’s palette measuring 18½ by 20¼ inches. Currently on view, perhaps it’s an unusual object to hang in a gallery. Yet it also affords us a kind of “behind the scenes” access: in this case, visible evidence of an artist’s working method. Notice the colors Bonheur expertly blended to decorate the palette’s center with an image of a small deer lying in a sunlit meadow. Compared to The Horse Fair, both encounters provide noteworthy museum “insider” experiences; one as intimate and charming as the other is imposing and spectacular.