Jean de Brunhoff (1899 – 1937) was best known for creating the Babar children’s books, which took the world by storm and have been in continuous publication ever since 1931. The Babar books began as a bedtime story that Jean’s wife Cécile de Brunhoff invented for their children, Mathieu and Laurent. The boys liked the story of the little elephant who left the jungle for a city resembling Paris so much that they took it to their father, a skilled painter of portraits and landscapes, and asked him to illustrate it. Jean turned it into a picture book, with text, which became The Story of Babar. Six more titles followed before Jean de Brunhoff died of tuberculosis at the age of 37. In 1946, at the age of 21, Jean’s son Laurent de Brunhoff (b.1925) wrote and illustrated his first Babar book, and has since completed over 50 Babar books.
Mary Ryan Gallery is the exclusive representative of original Babar illustrations from the estate of Jean de Brunhoff. Most of Jean’s illustrations are already in permanent museum collections and only a handful have ever been made publicly available.
Born in Paris, de Brunhoff came from a family of successful magazine and publishing professionals. His father Maurice ran a publishing house. His brothers, Michel and Jacques, were the editors of Paris Vogue and Le decor d’aujourd’hui, respectively. His sister, Cosette, was a photographer, whose husband ran Conde Nast’s Le Jardin des modes, where de Brunhoff’s first four Babar stories were published. Hachette and The Daily Sketch, a British newspaper, were among the first to publish additional Babar stories and illustrations.
In 2012, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris held major exhibitions of Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff’s work, accompanied by a catalog, Les Histoires de Babar, published with contributions from both museums and organized by curator Dorothée Charles. In 2008, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York mounted a major exhibition of original drawings and manuscripts by Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff, for which a catalog was published, Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors by Christine Nelson, including an essay about Babar by Adam Gopnik, which was also published in The New Yorker. The work of Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff has also been the subject of books by Anne Hildebrand, Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff: The Legacy of Babar (New York: Twayne, 1991) and by Nicholas Fox Weber, The Art of Babar (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989).
There have been major exhibitions of Jean and Laurent’s work held in 1981 at the Centre Culturel du Marais in Paris; in 1983-84 in at Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, Baltimore Museum of Art, Toledo Museum of Art, among others; in 1987 in Japan; and in 1989-90 at the National Academy of Design in New York and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, among others. The original Babar manuscript and artwork by Jean de Brunhoff for The Story of Babar is in the collection of The Morgan Library and Museum, New York. His manuscripts and artwork for The Travels of Babar and Zephyr’s Holidays are in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.