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.
War: His early schooling was at Protestant schools. After graduation, Brunhoff joined the French army at the end of World War I reaching the front lines when the war was nearly over.
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 Sabour and, 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.
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One of the delights in dealing in children’s first edition books is having an legitimate reason to dip into the children’s literary world for a short while. Allowing time to relish the humour of a well written children’s story and enjoy the colourful and charming pictures is a real pleasure. Babar the Elephant is one of those classic characters from the twentieth century who never fails to tempt adults and children alike. His creator, Jean De Brunhoff, produced definitive works of children’s writing and artwork that remain popular with all ages today.
Brunhoff wrote and illustrated a series of six Babar books plus an Elephant alphabet book. The books are often considered a personal reflection of Brunhoff’s life events. They depict birth, loss of a family member, a journey to a large city, education, marriage and the development of a kingdom (although the latter clearly not played out in Brunhoff’s life!). Brunhoff stories included tales of death and war yet he managed to portray these unpleasant topics in a straightforward and understandable manner. When they were published in 1930’s their large format and double page spread was considered distinctive and instantly appealing to children. In addition, the use of a cursive writing text encouraged an intimate relationship with the story. Primarily however, Brunhoff’s talented watercolour illustrations in detailed and bright colours were an instant attraction for children and his simple yet poetic prose spoke directly to his audience.
Brunhoff had many life experiences to draw upon in his portrayal of Babar’s life. After graduation Brunhoff joined the French Army at the end of World War 1 and engaged in warfare on the front line. After studying with Othon Friesz, at the Acadamie de la Chamiere in Montparnasse he became a professional artist. He excelled in works of portraits, still lives and landscapes. Brunhoff married a talented pianist, Cecile Sabourand, in 1924 and they had three sons, Laurent, Mathieu and Thierry. It was Cecile who initially invented a bedtime story about a little elephant to amuse Matthieu who was ill at the time. The child and his brothers so loved the story of the little elephant who left the jungle for the big city that they encouraged their father to illustrate the story and make a book about the elephant. Brunhoff’s artistic skills turned the story into a picture book, with text, which became The Story of Babar.
Jean de Brunhoff came from a family of successful publishing professionals and his father actually ran a publishing house. His brothers were the editors of Paris Vogue and Le Decor D’Aujourd’hui. His sister was a photographer who was married to the chief of Conde Nast’s Le Jardin Des Modes. The familial influence no doubt encouraged the formulation of a book of the bedtime tales. The result was Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant which was published in 1931 by his brother in law’s publishers at Editions du Jardin Des Modes. The first USA publication was in 1933 by Harrison Smith & Robert Hass. An English version was presented in the Daily Sketch and later published in 1934 by Methuen with an introduction by A.A. Milne. The Babar character was an instant success and Brunhoff was encouraged to write more stories about the elephant. He wrote a succession of Babar books over the next few years. Le Voyage de Babar (1932), Le Roi Babar (1933), Le ABC de Babar (1934), were published by Jardin Des Modes. The last three stories, Les Vacance deZephir (1936), Babar en Famille, (1938) and Babar et Pere Noel (1941), were all published by a different publisher, Hachette. English versions of all these books were soon published and the Babar character became internationally popular.
Unfortunately in the early 1930’s Brunhoff was diagnosed with tuberculosis and he was required to spend long periods of time in a Swiss sanatorium. Despite his illness Brunhoff was able to continue his work, yet he died at the age of 38 in 1937 before he was able to see his last few books published. Fortunately his son, Laurent, has safeguarded the style and writing of his father’s Babar books and continued to publish the Babar stories ten years after his death. There are now over fifty Babar titles and sales of the books are in their millions. Laurent De Brunhoff has ensured the success of the Babar character continues to this day.
Reviewers have praised the uniqueness of Brunhoff’s approach to children’s literature from the first publication date to today. John Piper (1903-92) from the Spectator commented that Brunhoff “had that power of careful observation that allowed him again and again to hit on ideas so simple and obvious that nobody has thought of them in that way before, although everybody wishes they had.” The children’s author, A.A. Milne, was an admirer of Brunhoff who wrote a fond introduction to the first UK edition of The Story of Babar in 1934. Milne’s charming words stated, “If you love elephants, you will love Babar and Celeste. If you have never loved elephants, you will love them now. If you who are grown-up have never been fascinated by a picture book before, then this is the one which will fascinate you…I salute M. de Brunhoff. I am at his feet.” More recently Roger Sale examined the enduring fascination of English children’s literary books and characters in his edition of “Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B White”. Of the Babar stories he commented they “rightly rank with the Beatrix Potter books as the best ever made for very young children.” The artwork of Burnhoff and his son has received similar acclaim. There have been many major exhibitions of both father and son’s illustrations in Paris, New York, Japan and Toronto plus many others. The Morgan Library and Museum, New York holds the original The Story of Babar manuscript and artwork. The manuscripts and artwork for The Travels of Babar and Zephyr’s Holidays are held in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
Jean De Brunhoff clearly meets the critieria for creating a significant literary children’s character and his son secured the legacy of his father’s work. Babar continues to bring delight to many children’s (and if we will admit it, adults!) lives. Who needs more of an excuse to dip into a Babar book?
Rare and Antique Books holds many first editions of his early works, including those with introductions by A. A. Milne (UK – Methuen and American – Smith & Haas).