Throughout history, female artists have frequently been overlooked and undervalued. A pair of new biographical picture books paint vivid portraits of two women who defied societal expectations and overcame many challenges to pursue their art.
No Horses in the House!: The Audacious Life of Artist Rosa Bonheur by Governor General’s Literary Award nominee Mireille Messier focuses on the fictionalized formative years of the trailblazing French Realist painter. With an inviting, fairy-tale flourish, the opening sentence establishes the budding artist as a creative child who knows her own mind: “Once there was a girl named Rosa who loved to draw animals.” The limited, genteel pursuits sanctioned for girls in the 1800s hold no interest for young Rosa. Attempts to teach her to sew or cook “did not go well.” Much to the consternation of the community, Rosa’s father agrees to tutor her in art alongside her brothers.
Rosa’s passion for drawing is continually met with opposition, derision, and restriction. Solely because she is a girl, she’s repeatedly told, “You can’t be an artist!” Resolutely, Rosa does not listen. She hones her craft by intently examining animal anatomy and drawing night and day. When she’s ousted from the horse market (“It’s unladylike!”) she fills her family’s apartment with a menagerie of live models to sketch, including dogs, cats, rabbits, and even a goat. Donning her brother’s tweed cap and trousers, Rosa ducks back into the market to resume her independent studies, only to be notified it is against the law for girls to wear pants. Heated exchanges between Rosa and Parisian officials shed light on confining Victorian gender expectations and inequalities.
Vancouver artist and animator Anna Bron’s sepia-toned illustrations ground the story in a particular place and time. The scenes unfold with cinematic flair, showing the little iconoclast confronting towering crowds of naysayers, as well as her triumphant unveiling of The Horse Fair, the legendary painting that made her one of the most famous artists in France.
Messier presents this “peculiar pant-wearing, animal-loving, rule-defying young lady” as a confident, true original, forging her own artistic path. Endnotes provide a concise timeline and more information about the artist. Rosa Bonheur’s tenacity and determination will resonate with children, whether or not they’re familiar with her art.
A Tulip in Winter: A Story About Folk Artist Maud Lewis offers a window into the life of a “woman as one-of-a-kind as her house.” TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award–winning author Kathy Stinson eloquently captures Maud Lewis’s unwavering ability to see and create beauty in her otherwise harsh world. As a child, when her hands become too bent to play the piano, Maud picks up a paintbrush at her mother’s encouragement, and discovers the joy of art: “Red on white made its own kind of music.”
Creativity and colour continue to be constants in her life, along with pain, discrimination, and poverty. With a poetic economy of words, Stinson addresses Maud’s difficult realities. Growing up in rural Nova Scotia in the early 20th century, she’s teased for her short stature and “crooked walk.” Lacking knowledge of rheumatoid arthritis, her doctor cannot explain her condition. As an adult, Maud is unable to get a job. She finally finds acceptance and a home when she meets fish peddler Everett Lewis. Maud transforms their tiny, one-room house (“as dreary as a dishpan of dirty water”) into a work of art itself. Using leftover paint that Everett scrounges at the wharf, she adds beauty to the banal: forget-me-nots blossom along rickety stair steps and wide-eyed black kittens adorn the dustpan.
Acclaimed Nova Scotian illustrator Lauren Soloy’s exquisite digital artwork pays homage to Maud Lewis’s distinctive style with bright colours, bold forms, and recurring bucolic motifs. White line sketches of birds and flowers swirl across the pages and cleverly convey the imaginative and delightful possibilities Maud perceives everywhere.
The artfully composed, graceful narrative draws attention to Maud’s keen eye, natural talent, and strength of spirit. Back matter includes additional information about the life and legacy of this beloved folk-art icon.
A deep admiration and respect shines through this splendid, inspiring biography: “Maud was looking past what was hard, seeing what was good and beautiful.”