On this day: Lesbian Visibility Week: THE ROSA BONHEUR CASE


The Rosa Bonheur Case Carole Cassier Anna Polonyi
Image: The Rosa Bonheur Case. YouTube

A brilliant new web documentary series explores issues of visibility and representation through the story of French painter Rosa Bonheur. The Rosa Bonheur Case by Carole Cassier and Anna Polonyi shines a light on a fascinating woman while highlighting the relentless and ongoing march of historical queer erasure.

Scroll down for The Rosa Bonheur Case: Episode 1.

When I wrote about Rosa Bonheur in On This Day back in January, everything I read pointed to Rosa Bonheur being a lesbian, including contemporary newspaper articles. In the 1800s, references to her sexuality were necessarily oblique. But they were also unmistakable.

However, as Carole Cassier and Anna Polonyi reveal in The Rosa Bonheur Case, modern-day French media gloss over Rosa’s sexuality. Even more remarkably, some, including the current owner of the artist’s chateau/museum, outright deny Rosa’s lesbianism.

Queer erasure

Lesbians suffer doubly from historical erasure. Firstly as women. Secondly as lesbians.

Queer erasure is lethal. Over centuries, authorities erased queer identities by either ignoring us or deeming us too obscene for public discussion. However, in recent decades, we began to uncover our hidden histories. But bigots have fought back. They ban the mention of queer identity or history in schools. They remove books from libraries. Russia’s ‘Gay Propaganda’ law and Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill propagate the bizarre idea that acknowledging LGBTIQ+ identities equates to recruitment.

Reclaiming our history matters. As does articulating why it matters. Carole Cassier and Anna Polonyi do both through their passionate portrayal of an amazing woman:

“Rosa Bonheur was a highly successful, unconventional 19th-century French painter, a trailblazer in more ways than one: she smoked, wore trousers, hunted and painted in a genre traditionally reserved for men. She baffled gender norms yet made a killing off of her paintings, and has long been considered a lesbian icon.

“And yet, in 2022 France, 200 years after her birth, the story of Rosa’s sexuality is fraught with ambivalence. This web documentary tracks the life and loves of this forgotten superstar, and how she sheds light on questions of visibility and representation that continue to haunt queer and lesbian communities today.”

Carole Cassier and Anna Polonyi released the first episode of The Rosa Bonheur Case yesterday for Lesbian Visibility Week. The series will continue in bite-sized episodes over the next eight months. I can’t wait.

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