Yes, Mr. Benner is brave and energetic, his works show movement, life, strength; He is a born-painter and one with great breeding…
-Théodore Veron, Le Salon de 1876
Jean Benner followed a classically oriented artistic course that began with study at the École des Beaux-Arts under Isidore Pils and Jean-Jacque Henner, culminating in a lifelong fascination with Italy and the island of Capri. Fittingly, Benner also became interested in depicting idealized mythological subjects in the grand manner of the academic tradition.
He was born on March 28, 1836 in Mulhouse, in the Alsace region of eastern France. As the twin brother of Emmanuel Benner, the two artists both began working in the academic style which was being challenged by progressive artists, but which was still prevalent and respected by Salon juries and the public during this period. Their treatment of mythological scenes especially spoke to artists and the public of an older generation who sought to maintain art for the upper echelons of society, and away from the lower classes who would not necessarily understand the stories or the depictions.
The two brothers were part of a family of painters whose origins were in the Alsace region of France, which was annexed to Prussia after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. Consequently, many Alsacian artists retained strong political and social implications in their paintings. Both Jean and Emmanuel completed compositions based on Alsace, but did not concentrate on this for the majority of their oeuvre.
Jean began his artistic training with his father, also named Jean Benner, an artist of Swiss origin who was influenced by the Dutch masters and who worked most exclusively with drawings and paintings of flowers. After his beginning training under his father, Jean studied for a short time with Jean Eck, attending evening sessions at the atelier Suisse which was not so much a tutorial atelier as an open space providing a model for a young artist to study. Many other artists frequented this atelier, such as Gustave Courbet.
Some time later, Benner sought a more rigid, academic training and thus enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts studios of Isidore Pils and Jean-Jacque Henner, two artists who had gained prominence in the Parisian art world. Pils was also a Prix de Rome recipient and spent 1839-1844 in Italy, perhaps providing inspiration to Benner for his future voyage. During the Second Empire Pils became a favorite of important members of the Second Empire, ties that undoubtedly carried over to artists who studied with him. Jean and his twin brother Emmanuel followed a very similar course in their study, each studying with their father, then with Jean Eck, and culminating at the École des Beaux-Arts.
Benner began his public career at the Salon in 1859 where he exhibited Fleurs (Flowers). His early work shows Benner’s interest in still-lifes and portraits, but he should be mostly remembered for his views of Italy, especially that of the island Capri.
While many other artists of this period sought refuge in the Maghreb region of Africa, Benner followed his classical training by spending the majority of his time traveling through Italy. His first composition based on an Italian scene was a work entitled Maison à Ana (House at Ana) for the Salon of 1867. Presumably between 1867 and 1868 Benner set up residence in Capri, though still maintaining lodging with his brother, Emmanuel, in Paris. In 1869 he had returned to Paris and exhibited again at the Salon but from 1870 to 1877 he divided his time between Capri and Paris. In 1873 his son, Emmanuel-Michel-Many was born in Capri and later became a young prodigy at the École des Beaux-Arts, winning the second Prix de Rome which allowed him to return to Italy.
Writing about Benner’s entry for the 1876 Salon entitled Athéniennes Surprises par des Pélasges de Lemnos (The Athenians Surprised by the Pelasges of Lemnos), Théodore Veron gave a positive critique of his work in Le Salon de 1876 (pg. 37), praising his composition as a:
… A strong study which promises, a boldness that should be encouraged … congratulations to him for this good study, where the life size figures announce a brilliant success.
Benner continued submitting regularly to the Salon, almost each exhibition inspired at least in part by his voyages in Italy. In 1879 he became “hors concours” which provided him entry into the Salon without the necessity of jury acceptance. His official recompenses included a second-class medal at the Salon of 1872 (Après une Tempête, à Capri – After a storm, in Capri), and a bronze medal at both the 1889 and 1900 Exposition Universelle. He was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1894 and also became a member of the Société des Artistes Français. His final Salon exhibition was in 1907 when he exhibited Portrait de Mme B… (Portrait of Madame B…).
By the time of his death on October 28, 1909, Jean Benner had established himself as a serious academic painter who contributed regularly to the Salons. He left his son to carry on his legacy and to continue to promote the academic tradition of the École des Beaux-Arts in a period of intense controversy with modernism.
The largest portion of Benner’s work can now be found in the Mulhouse Musée des Beaux Arts, as well as the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Belfort.