Although a pupil of her father Oscar-Raymond Bonheur (1796-1849), she was largely self-taught, owing much to her study of Dutch animal paintings in the Louvre. She became the leading French animal painter of her time, much admired in Britain and America where her paintings fetched high prices. Her works are characterised by an unsentimental naturalism derived from close observation. In 1859 she acquired the château de By, near Fontainebleau, where she established a studio and a menagerie. Despite her fondness for wearing male attire, which shocked many of her contemporaries, she enjoyed considerable social success. She was the first woman to receive the Legion of Honour.