Jean-Jacques Henner was born, on the 15th of March, 1829, in the village of Bernwiller, not far from Belfort, on the confines of Alsace.
This origin explains the strongly personal character of his talent. Offspring as he was of a land that once was German,--and that, alas, has once again become so, after having been impregnated for several centuries with the refinement and the good taste of France,--Henner unites in himself the dominant qualities of both races: from Germany he derives his laborious energy, his tenacity, his spirit of research, his poetic dreaminess; to the French imprint he owes the delicacy, the good taste, the grace, the subtlety, the careful weighing of effects, that distinguish all his work.
Jean-Jacques Henner was the youngest child of a numerous family. His parents were modest tillers of the soil, who nevertheless had won the general esteem of the neighbourhood. Of little education, but honest and industrious, Henner's father was rewarded for his integrity and blameless life by being appointed to the office of village tax collector. With as little learning as her husband, his mother possessed a dreamy spirit and a very keen intelligence. It was she who first discerned in the thoughtful and rather backward boy the germs of his future talent; it was also she who encouraged and sustained him with her wise affection when the first promise of his future talent was revealed.
His vocation manifested itself at an early age. Little Jean-Jacques could barely read when he had already begun to adorn the walls with charcoal figures that "fairly stood on their feet," and proved that the child possessed a precocious power of observation. In some of these sketches it was easy to recognize certain frequent visitors to the house, friends and neighbours; and the good-hearted villagers used to come and admire these attempts. Quite surprised at these proclivities, his father, instead of interfering with the boy's natural bent, did his best to encourage it. Being unable to provide him with a drawing-master,--and for that matter the child was still too young,--he supplied him with models, in the shape of the familiar Epinal coloured prints which little Jean-Jacques tried to reproduce to the best of his ability. It certainly was not through the aid of these naïve and rudimentary essays in colour work that Henner learned the art of drawing, but they at least served to strengthen his desire to learn, and gave him facility in handling his pencil.
The father of little Jean-Jacques served him as best he could; it was he who laid the corner-stone of his son's future glory. In that humble household, where each member had his appointed task, from the father down to the frailest child, Jean-Jacques was the only one who took no part in the labour of the fields; he was exempted in order to continue his education and develop his taste for drawing.
Even the neighbours, astonished at his precocity, aided him as best they could. One brought paper, another an old picture, another some prints found in an out-of-the-way corner of the house, still another a supply of paints. Thus equipped, the child worked with unflagging zeal, undertook to learn the use of colours, and in order to repay his benefactors, he made portraits of them, which are still preserved in those Alsatian households and which already reveal, in more than one of those likenesses that he always caught so well, the first germs of those qualities of a great portrait painter, such as he was one day destined to become.
"You will be a great artist," his father used to say, as he kissed him; for the good man foresaw, almost by divination, the glorious destiny that awaited his son. And addressing his other sons, all of them older than little Jean-Jacques, and all of them destined to pass their days in the hard labour of tilling the soil, he told them:
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