The unique Jean de Brunhoff
One of the most beloved characters in children’s literature is Babar the Elephant. Created from bedtime stories that his wife used to soothe an ill son, Jean de Brunhoff went on to write and illustrate six books which have delighted children since their publication in the 1930s. Brunhoff managed to convey important life events in a way that was meaningful to children and often reflected the personal life and philosophy of the creator. In Three Centuries of Children’s Books in Europe, Bettina Hurlimann commented that the author’s life is “inseparable from his books” and several critics believe that Babar is Brunhoff’s characterization of himself. It is possible to see images of his own life in his work and to imagine the inspirations that generated these final images:
Early life: Brunhoff was the last and fourth child of Maurice de Brunhoff, a publisher, and Marguerite Brunhoff. He was born on December 9th, 1899 in Paris, France.
Training: Deciding to become a professional artist, Brunhoff studied painting with Othon Friesz at the Acadamie de la Grand Chamiere in Montparnasse. He created portraits, landscapes, and still life drawings that are reflected in his Babar books.
Family: In 1924, Brunhoff married Cecile Sabourand, a talented pianist from a Catholic family. The couple had three sons: Laurent, born in 1925, Mathieu, born in 1926, and Thierry, born in 1934.
Illness: Diagnosed with tuberculosis at a tragically early age, Brunhoff was forced to move into a sanitarium in Switzerland to treat his increasingly poor health. Unable to return home, he rearranged the nature of his Babar stories, making Babar becoming a father himself. He adapted the stories to allow him to offer paternal advice for his own sons. Brunhoff died on October 16, 1937, at the young age of 38.
Jean de Brunhoff’s images portray a wide range of life experiences in a sensitive way that was quite rare and novel in it’s time. His work was well received by critics and remains iconic today. Maurice Sendak, who wrote an introduction to a 60th Anniversary Album of Babar, famously comments, “Babar is at the very heart of my conception of what turns a picture book into a work of art.… Beneath the pure fun, the originality of style, and the vivacity of imagination is a serious and touching theme: a father writing to his sons and voicing his natural concern for their welfare, for their lives … Jean’s bequest to his family, and the world, shines from the books.” It is no wonder that first editions of Jean de Brunhoff’s work are so treasured and valued.
To see more first edition illustrations and writings of Jean de Brunhoff click here