Let’s take a closer look at Ploughing in the Nivernais by Rosa Bonheur. It was Commissioned by the French government and won Bonheur a First Medal at the 1849 Paris Salon. It’s perhaps her most famous painting behind The Horse Fair which she painted a few years later in 1855. I’ll cover:
- Space, Balance, and Composition
- Direction and Movement
- Atmospheric Perspective
- Light and Shadow
- Key Takeaways
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
It’s a large painting (52 by 100 inches) of a simple and strong subject. Oxen and farmers plough the land in the Nivernais region of France. The animals and land are depicted in an honest, almost romantic manner, as you would expect from Bonheur. The farmers actually take a backseat role in the painting, despite them leading the oxen. They appear small and insignificant compared to the oxen with their glistening fur and rippling muscles.
Today, you can see the painting at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Space, Balance, and Composition
The first thing that strikes me about the painting is the play between busy and quiet space. The busy space being the oxen, farmers, and all the detail in the foreground. The quiet space being the open sky and distant hills. The busy space takes up less room in the painting, but it commands more attention. There’s an interesting sense of balance between this small area of busy space and the large area of quiet space.
Usually, I would suggest you do more with the sky, even if it’s just some subtle, visible brushwork. But, Bonheur’s approach works well here as it plays into the idea of a vast, open sky on a calm day. It also ensures that attention is not pulled away from the more important areas: the oxen and farmers.
Tip: Always consider the role that each area plays in the overall painting. Match your approach to the role. In this case, Bonheur used flat and smooth brushwork to convey the open sky, but this approach might not work as well for a moody, overcast day.
The painting is a great demonstration of how you can use space, balance, and composition to influence the overall feel of your painting and how you can convey the subject in a certain light or manner. All the open space gives the painting a quiet and almost serene feel. It also gives the landscape a strong role in the painting, rather than it merely being part of the background.
Consider what the painting would look like had Bonheur zoomed in on a few of the oxen and farmers. The overall feel would be completely different. It would be more dramatic and intimate and it would place more focus on the individual characteristics and traits of those farmers and oxen. We would see the strain on their faces and the tension in their muscles. And what were small details are now significant details (look at the saliva dripping from the ox’s mouth below and the detail of horns and hair).
Tip: One of our jobs as artists is to use space, balance, and composition to convey the subject in a certain light or to push certain ideas about the subject. If these are not aligned, the artwork won’t be as compelling or honest and it won’t say what you want it to say.
Direction and Movement
There’s a broad sense of direction and movement to the right-hand side of the painting. The oxen and farmers are all ploughing this way. The hill on the left extends this motion and makes it curved rather than straight (curves tend to be more interesting than straight lines; curves inject fluidity, whereas straight lines are rigid and static).
Notice how this broad movement leads our eyes out of the painting. This goes against composition theory, which suggests you should use movement and direction to retain a viewer’s gaze within the painting. But it works in this case, as it hints at the long path ahead and all the work still to be done. Also, we aren’t that curious about what is to the right as we can assume it’s more of the same.
There is some slight resistance against the broad movement to the right. See how one of the farmers is gesturing to the side and one of the oxen is turning its head slightly outwards (circled below). This resistance is subtle but important. It adds a hint of tension to the painting.
The painting is a great demonstration of atmospheric perspective. It’s a clear, sunny day with a few clouds in the sky. As we move through the painting into the distance, the colors get weaker and cooler and the details get vaguer. This also softens the contrast and strengthens the harmony between the distant colors.
Tip: A good rule of thumb for atmospheric perspective is that an object will gradually take on the appearance of the surrounding atmosphere as it recedes into the distance. So, step one should always be to identify the atmosphere of the scene.
The effects of atmospheric perspective provide us with valuable insights into the relative distance of areas and the overall layout of the landscape. The rich and full colors and the sharp contrast in the foreground tell us this area is close in perspective. They also help focus our attention on this area and the oxen and farmers. The hill on the left is a touch cooler and weaker than the foreground, but much richer than the hills at the back. This gives us an idea of how close the hill on the left is and how far away the hills in the back are. The color gradation on the other side of the painting (the right side) is much smoother, suggesting the land is relatively flat. The color gradation in the sky plays into the idea of a vast, open sky (no or little gradation typically suggests we are looking at a smaller section of the sky).
Light and Shadow
The painting has strong lights and strong shadows, with the shadows leaning to the right. This tells us the sunlight is strong, direct, and coming from the left.
Tip: The nature and position of the lights and shadows provide significant information about the dominant light source. It’s important to get these details right.
The lights are slightly warm compared to the shadows (following the warm lights, cool shadows rule of thumb). This is most evident with the prominent white ox in front of us. Notice how the lights are a toucher warmer and closer to yellow and the shadows are a touch cooler and closer to blue. There’s a contrast not only value (light against dark) but also temperature (warm against cool). When you overlay multiple points of contrast like this, the contrast is enhanced.
The highlights are crisp but not overstated. Bonheur used them to convey light reflecting off fur, the white clothing in light, and as accents around the mouths and eyes of the oxen.
For the fur, notice how the scattered nature of the highlights helps convey the irregular and rough nature of the fur and how Bonheur built up to the highlights rather than jumping straight to them. They are just a touch lighter than the light mid-tones.
You might also consider the light parts of the clouds to be highlights, but only in isolation. They are fairly restrained compared to the highlights in the foreground. This conveys atmospheric perspective and pushes the clouds back in terms of attention.
Below is the painting in grayscale (using my grid and grayscale tool). This reveals a few additional insights:
- The white oxen are much lighter than the rest of the painting, even the sky.
- The white oxen on the left are a touch darker than those on the right.
- The land in the foreground and the hill on the left are similar in value, simplifying the area into one large mass.
I also created a two-value notan of the painting using Photoshop. This is what the painting looks like in its most abstract form. It’s a simple and strong design that reiterates the broad motion to the right-hand side. But, it’s sloping down rather than up. Photoshop is picking up the light clouds just above the hill. One of the useful aspects of notan is that it can pick up “hidden” underlying structures or patterns like this.
Bonheur’s brushwork is careful and refined, but it still has painterly qualities. For areas out of focus, she used simplified brushwork and focused more so on abstract shapes. For areas in focus, she used more intricate and varied brushwork. She also used a few feature details and strokes to give context to the surroundings. For example, look at the oxen’s hair and the scattered grass in the foreground. She didn’t paint every strand of hair and grass. She painted just a few and let them do most of the work.
Here are some close-ups:
Here are some of the key takeaways from this painting:
- Large paintings command attention. If painting for an exhibition, consider going large to make a powerful statement.
- A single painting can dramatically propel your art career, as this one did for Bonheur. The challenge is, to produce this standout work requires creating hundreds, maybe thousands of artworks that largely go unnoticed.
- You can use space, balance, and composition to influence the overall feel of your painting and to say what you want to say about the subject.
- A good rule of thumb for atmospheric perspective is that an object will gradually take on the appearance of the surrounding atmosphere as it recedes into the distance. The detail will also get vaguer.
- Notan can be a valuable tool for revealing “hidden” underlying structures and patterns in a painting.
- Realism doesn’t mean you must paint every single detail with a tiny liner brush. You can simplify some of the detail and paint with broad strokes.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends. Let me know your thoughts on the painting in the comments.
Draw Paint Academy
38 comments on “A Closer Look at Ploughing in the Nivernais by Rosa Bonheur”
I will keep this ‘critique’ for ongoing study as I found it extremely interesting and useful. Thank you so very much. The only problem is that it makes my own work seem so drab. But at least I am beginning to understand what is wrong with it!
This critique is really helpful in understanding the important elements of artworks followed by great artists.
It is an absolutely fabulous painting. Thank you for pointing out the detail(s) which helps to appreciate the work so much more. I can’t stop looking at it, simply stunning!
Thank you for dissecting the painting in this way, most helpful.
A very helpful and insightful analysis. Your comments about painting large and having obscure paintings that eventually lead to major notice are points well taken. Thanks a million!
The oxen have no harness to pull the plow! Not realistic but everything else is! Why?
Look in the larger photo of the 2 oxen . I see a pole with a chain between them.
I had the same question. I see the pole with the chain, but nothing that attaches to the oxen.
You can see the harness between the oxen at the front, leading backwards to a chain which is attached to the plough.
I was wondering about the same thing. How do the oxen pull the plough without any harness?
Yes no harness. I can see a chains and poles but with out a harness the chain and pole are cosmetic and serve no actual practical purpose. Its an odd look with all the bullocks not harnessed? He creates an ‘realistic’ image but leaves out an important detail. Maybe there some sort of ‘local’ harness system Im not familiar but its a head scratcher…or maybe he just couldn’t be bothered painting it. I do wonder? 🙂
Thank you Dan! Another very comprehensive overview of a wonderful painting! Appreciate your insight and reflections very much!
Thank you Dan. I really appreciate your critiques on the old masters. I am always learning more to hopefully improve my own paintings with all your advice.
What an interesting commentary, thank you, I so enjoyed reading this. I think the first time I read one of your articles was on Van Gogh which was also powerful.
What a beautiful painting. I will be observing it for days. Your explanation helps so much
about what we are seeing.
Thank you, Dan.
It almost looks like a photograph rather than a painting. It is a painting from the past where realism was honored more than it is today, perhaps because we have mastered taking photographs that can mimic paintings. The iconography is definitely old school, though masterfully done. What stands out for me is the texture in the oxen’s fur, the earth, and the diagonal of tree line. This variety of lines’ directions create interest for the observer. Thank you for your analysis. I take other people’s perceptions in and then try to forget them, though difficult, in order to find my own voice in the process of creating whether in writing, painting, or playing music. It all comes from the space down deep inside one, and ultimately not from the academics of production, that can be learned by most. Thank you again for your contribution to the process. Happy Trails.
This was a fascinating analysis covering so much ground. Super useful and so interesting.
First thing I noticed and then I was stuck trying to see where they are attached to the poles! Thank you for your excellent break down Dan, really gets you thinking about your own art.
Great critique, thank you. Much to think about.
Helpful analysis of the reasons why this painting is so well done. Thanks!
I too thought at first glance it was a photograph. It is exceptionally well done.
With your expert analyses, it all seems so clear. Thank you, Will continue to study this one.
It is an absolutely fabulous painting. I’m surprised that it was painted in 1849 which puzzles me. Why have I never heard of her when so many other French artists in the late 1800’s are so famous and less polished, in my opinion? Also, one the characteristics of Impressionism, which appeared in the late 1800’s was that artists painted more everyday scenes rather than religious or mythical subjects and they used more pastel type colors. This scene seems to me like it would have been painted later in the late 1800’s so it puzzles me. I’m not sure where it fits in art history.
Looks like a Hudson River School ptg.
From what I have read, female artists were not considered as important as the male artist.
One small example is that she -among other female painters- is not listed in E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art.
I cannot fathom a painter taking the time to do such a work. It had to be for HER own pleasure. Who could pay her what that is worth?!
I also thought it was a photo at first until I looked closer at the plowed ground, however, it is an amazing painting. Your analysis and comparison to other old masters’ techniques simplifies the “whys” and “hows” Rosa Bonheur chose her own path to create her masterpiece. She keeps the observer’s attention not only with the oxen’s fur, but the different lines directions on such a large painting. Thank you for your great critique of this painting.
Thank you.very tranquil.
So very well done. Helps me to focus on what is really important in a large painting.
Thanks so much.
I feel that the painting isn’t about the attachment if the oxen to the plough. (Actually, its around the horns, the strongest part of the head and least likely to get rubbed). Its a masterful painting! I feel the reason behind why we don’t hear about her is because of her gender. What is to be applauded is that she was awarded the commission.
Thank you, Dan, for your careful critique. It certainly added to my appreciation of the painting.
Hello Dan. Many of todays painters would find this painting to be old fashioned & not to their taste. That is a pity as it is an excellent painting.
Since Impressionism, the trend to classing paintings as good has moved to simplistic, new, different, as the guides for assessing quality.
However your analyses of art works are truly authoritative, detailed and helpfully in depth. Keep up the great work.
Really enjoyed this review. Each section gave good examples of your observations. Helps to see the example. Question. Do the brights and highlights seem too intense ? Beautiful I think . If I tried that much light appear wrong or too much . However her goal was to make the subjects really stand out. Is that just another style ?
Thank you for your many insights into this painting Dan. I appreciate all that you have seen in it. I thing I noticed also was the the cows are pulling up a slope. About 20 degrees slope upwards. There is a corresponding slope downwards in the foreground (grassed area). This seems the suggest that the effort (work) that is the lot of man and beast is always an upwards struggle. Never easy.
I too plan to save this posting. It is both a comprehensive and informative analysis of a painting, and also a concise teaching on how to plan or critique one’s own painting.
Excellent critiquing Dan of a great Painting
Thank you, Dan for taking the time to take a closer look at this painting. I feel so lucky to be able to read your analysis. Your posts really help me to grow my thinking as an artist.
Thank you for sharing this painting by a female painter. An evocative, peaceful setting. Your critique offers good suggestions which I hope to implement. I will definitely enjoy looking at this painting again and again.
What an intriguing painting! Rosa Bonheur was a female artist who made a mark in the world of predominately male artists. Great composition and anatomy of the strong working animals. She may have missed the mark on the harnesses but does it even matter? I could look at this masterpiece over and over again. Love the contrast of smooth vs detailed brushstrokes and the light and dark shadows. Thanks for bringing the painting and the artist to our attention. Love your critique Dan!