Jean de Brunhoff is most famous as the author and illustrator of the children's novels about 'Babar' the elephant. He was born in Paris in 1899, as the son of a publisher. Near the very end of World War One he fought in the trenches. After the war he studied painting at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. He married Cécile Sabouraud in 1924, with whom he would have three sons: Laurent (1925), Mathieu (1926) and Thierry (1934). When Laurent and Mathieu were respectively four and five years old their mother told them a bedtime story about an elephant, Babar, whose mother is shot by a hunter. Babar flees and discovers a city, where he is adopted by a rich old human lady, literally named 'Christelle, la vieille dame'. She dresses and tutors him as if he's a human. By the time Babar's cousins Celeste and Arthur have located him Babar is basically a civilized animal. They return to the jungle and learn that the elephant king has recently passed away. Babar is crowned his successor, marries Celeste and molds the jungle according to human civilization and ethics. Brunhoff's children liked the story so much that they asked their father to write it down and illustrate it. The work was published as 'Histoire de Babar' (1931) and became an immediate bestseller.
While Cécile de Brunhoff is often credited with thinking up the story and characters the visual style of 'Babar' was completely Jean's work. His original drawings were very simple, almost naïve in their execution. Still, they capture the charm and innocence of the story perfectly. Since De Brunhoff worked on instinct, rather than professional technique, he made some innovations not found before in French children's literature. Before 'Babar' most books in the genre had a small format and the images were just vignettes. De Brunhoff's books were made in a big format, with large illustrations often spread over two pages. He also worked in Chinese ink and colourized the drawings with bright aquarel paint.
The 'Babar' franchise was followed by many sequels: 'Le Voyage de Babar' (1932), 'Le Roi Babar' (1933), 'L'ABC de Babar' (1934), 'Les Vacances de Zéphir' (1936) and 'Babar en famille' (1938). The character received four children: Pom, Flora, Alexander and Isabelle. His royal household was enlarged with Cornelius the counsellor, Poutifour the gardener and Babar's good friend Zéphir the monkey. Christelle, the old lady who took care of Babar, also moves in at his palace. The elephants also received an antagonist: the rhinoceros king Rataxes. By 1933 the book was translated in English by none other than A.A. Milne, author of 'Winnie the Pooh'.
Unfortunately De Brunhoff didn't live long to enjoy Babar's global success. In 1937 he died of tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Montana, Switzerland. His final completed story mirrored his own illness. The plot has Babar visit an old, sick and tired elephant. De Brunhoff's son Laurent took over the colorization of his fathers' black-and-white drawings, despite being only thirteen years old at the time. A posthumous title, 'Babar et le Père Noël' appeared in 1941. After World War Two, Laurent de Brunhoff continued the franchise by personally writing and illustrating new books every year.
Despite sometimes being accused of advocating neocolonialism, 'Babar' has become an international phenomenon. It has been translated in Dutch, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Polish, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Arab, Turkish, Chinese and Japanese. In 1968 it was adapted for television as a puppet series by Antégor. Two animated features, 'Babar, le Petit Eléphant' (1968) and 'Babar en Amérique' (1971) followed. Between 1989 and 1991 Nelvana transformed 'Babar' into an animated TV series. The latter version remodelled Babar with a shorter trunk and simpler colours for merchandising purposes. The Old Lady became tall and slender, rather than chubby as in the original novel. Another character - Pompadour the servant - was created specifically for the series. One of the animators of the series was Jeff Baud. The show lasted five seasons, with two film adaptations, 'Babar: The Movie' (1989) and 'Babar: King of the Elephants' (1999), and one extra TV season in 2000. Two 'Babar' novels inspired classical compositions by François Poulenc ('L' Histoire de Babar', 1940) and Raphael Mostel ('Le Voyage de Babar', 1994). De Brunhoff's artwork was a major inspiration for Maurice Sendak and Dick Bruna.