Rosa Bonheur created “Sheep by the Sea” following a trip through the Scottish Highlands in the summer of 1855. In painting this complacent flock of sheep settled in a meadow near a body of water, Bonheur captured a placid moment. “Sheep by the Sea” demonstrates the artist’s commitment to direct observation from nature. The thickly applied paint provides texture that conveys the lushness of a verdant landscape at water’s edge. The informality of this rustic scene belies the detailed physiognomic studies of animals that Bonheur frequently sketched before executing a work in oil paint.
Although the Empress Eugénie of France commissioned “Sheep by the Sea,” Bonheur exhibited the painting at the Salon of 1867 before it entered her collection. The empress (like her contemporary, Queen Victoria) also patronized the renowned British artist Sir Edwin Landseer, whose sentimental paintings of domestic animals became popular among the upper classes in England and France. Yet, unlike Landseer’s animals, which play out human dramas, Bonheur’s animals appear within their natural habitats, not subjected to human laws and emotions.