is currently burning up Netflix (and causing a national shortage of chess sets) with its tale of Elizabeth Harmon, an orphan chess prodigy succeeding in the male-dominated world of chess in the ‘60s. Based on a 1983 coming-of-age novel by Walter Tevis, the miniseries is entirely fictional. It does, however, feature a fun art history reference that throws a light on a real figure fans of the show are likely to find just as intriguing: Rosa Bonheur.
Early in episode two, the young Elizabeth (Anya Taylor-Joy) is welcomed into to her new home by her adopted mother, Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller). “Those are Rosa Bonheur prints,” Wheatley says of the art on the walls, copies of Bonheur’s (1888) and (1850). “Not originals of course. Do you like animals? I do. I love them.”
It’s a small detail—but for art history nerds, it actually gestures toward most of the themes in the series. (The detail comes directly from the description of the Wheatley house in the Tevis book.)
“Rosa Bonheur,” as Linda Nochlin once wrote in her path-breaking essay on feminist art history, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” “is a woman artist in whom, partly because of the magnitude of her reputation, all the various conflicts, all the internal and external contradictions and struggles typical of her sex and profession, stand out in sharp relief.”
Bonheur was born in 1822. Her own mother struggled, in the face of an absentee husband, to support the family with piano lessons, and died when Bonheur was a girl. These themes are echoed in ’s relationship between Elizabeth (whose own mother died when she was young) and Alma (a frustrated piano player with an absentee husband).
Bonheur, who got her start copying paintings in the Louvre as a teenager, went on to become one of the most celebrated and successful painters of her epoch, with a focus specifically on animals. (She often dressed like a man to increase her mobility and get close to her subjects.) She travelled internationally, with her art causing a sensation abroad in England and becoming widely reproduced in the Anglophone world. In her native France, she was the first woman to receive the Légion d’Honneur for achievement in the arts, with Empress Eugénie de Montijo famously declaring, upon giving it to her, “Genius has no sex.”
Bonheur’s commitment to an independent career also separated her from having anything like a typical family life. “I wed art,” Bonheur once said. “It is my husband—my world—my life-dream—the air I breathe. I know nothing else—feel nothing else—think nothing else. My soul finds in it the most complete satisfaction.”
You could say that Alma Wheatley having Bonheur prints probably suggests that she is an educated woman with a sense of independent potential—though the fact that she describes them as just pictures of animals symbolizes that her aspirations are stifled. The fictional Elizabeth Harmon’s arc, on the other hand, retraces the rough contours of Bonheur’s life, with a passion for competitive chess substituting for art.
Only since 2017 has an initiative in France has come alive to create a dedicated museum out of Bonheur’s house, the Château de By, notes a recent magazine article. Spearheaded by Katherine Brault, the proposed Musée de l’atelier Rosa Bonheur hopes to bring greater attention to Bonheur’s legacy in France. It received official support from the French government only last year as one of 18 sites targeted for preservation.
Maybe it gets another small boost from its cameo in .