When Patricia McCormick realized she didn’t have a future in music, she chose a career as filled with drama, passion and death as any of the operas she longed to sing.

She became a matadora, breaking long-standing barriers against women and Americans in machismo-saturated Mexican bullrings and performing before enthusiastic crowds in more than 300 fights. In 1963, Sports Illustrated wrote that McCormick “may well be the greatest woman bullfighter who ever lived.”

Over more than 10 years, she was gored six times, once so brutally that a priest administered last rites over her mangled body. But she recovered and fought a few more years before exiting the arena in the early 1960s, complaining, among other things, that the bulls had become too small.

She spent the rest of her life far from the public eye, pouring herself into her watercolors of horses and bulls and working as an administrative assistant at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

In failing health for several years, McCormick died March 26 at a care facility in Del Rio, Texas, her cousin Thomas McCormick said. She was 83.

Although a small number of women had been drawn to the bullring over centuries, McCormick was among the first in Mexico who were allowed to perform in much the same manner as men: on foot rather than horseback, and with bulls that were fully grown. But for all her skills, the tall, elegant, Missouri-born McCormick never was allowed to take the “alternative” — an initiation ceremony that would have signified parity with the top male bullfighters of her day.

Still, she fought on the same bill as some of the arena’s most accomplished men, facing more than 600 bulls at rings in Mexico and Venezuela. While some “toreros” were viewed as little more than novelty acts, McCormick had a legion of fans among aficionados, said Fred Renk, a breeder of fighting bulls in Texas.

“She was real prestige,” said Renk. “When she walked into the bullring, people cheered and she’d just bow her head.”

Patricia Lee McCormick was born in St. Louis on Nov. 18, 1929, and moved with her parents to Big Spring, Texas, when she was 13. The only child of a petroleum engineer, she graduated from high school in 1948. After a discouraging time studying music at the University of Texas, she took up painting at what was then Texas Western College in El Paso.

For McCormick, El Paso’s secret allure lay just across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez. At age 7, she had attended a bullfight with her parents in Mexico City and it stuck with her. Later, she recalled “falling in love” that day with a matador who lost his shoes in the mud but continued to fight.

Never repulsed by the ring’s raw violence, the 20-year-old art student persuaded Alejandro de Herrera, a Juarez bullfighter, to train her.

It was the start of a brilliant career that in some ways was doomed from the outset.

“She was of an era that was very, very difficult for women,” retired bullfighter Honey Anne Haskin, also known as Ana de Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times. “There were other women who were very, very good, but the one everyone talked about with respect and admiration was Patricia McCormick.”