Charles-Émile Jacque was born May 23rd, 1813 in Paris. At around twelve years of age, Jacque was placed in school in the Marais and worked under a notary shortly thereafter. At seventeen, he was apprenticed to a cartographer, but having already shown a liking for drawing, his menial task of tracing simple lines from one point to another only caused frustration. Other accounts suggest that he copied lithographs or worked with his uncle who painted chimney fronts. Whatever the case may have been, none of these opportunities gave him proper training in art, in sharp contrast to many other men his age who were already engaged in artistic training at an atelier or at the École des Beaux-Arts. His only true artistic training was around 1840 when he worked in the atelier Suisse, an informal studio that provided models but no instruction, also where Gustave Courbet – who would become a major force behind the Realist movement – worked for a short period of time.
Apart from a lack of extensive preliminary training, the debut of his artistic career was also hampered by his military service, a duty that would occupy seven years of his life. During this period, he made many sketches of army life and sold small drawings for a franc a piece. He would also later draw from this experience in the military with his many illustrations and caricatures for Parisian journals. Upon completion of his military service in 1838, Jacque quickly began executing his first graphic prints. Later that year he journeyed to England, drawn to their well-practiced technique of woodcut engraving. During his almost two year period in England he worked as an illustrator for books and journals; producing complete illustrations of The Dance of Death, and a pictorial edition of a Shakespearian play, among many others. Jacque returned to Paris in 1840 with a broader knowledge of printmaking and began a period of intense work in the graphic arts, acting as both an illustrator and caricaturist. At the end of the 1830s, Jacque had become one of the earliest artists to renew the technique of etching, placing him in a definitive position as a forerunner of the etching revival, which would fully come to fruition in the 1860s with the organization of the Société des Aquafortistes, of which Jacque was a member.
As his career progressed, Jacque abandoned book illustration and by the mid 1840s began focusing his efforts on producing original etchings which were inspired by the Dutch masters, especially Rembrandt, and which contributed to the revival of Dutch art. However, he became increasingly interested in working on his own subject matter which could be exhibited at the Salon – works influenced by scenes from rural life, including landscapes, peasants, and animals, which he viewed during several journeys through the Seine valley.
In 1849, a cholera epidemic swept through Paris. Jacque, along with his friend Jean-Francois Millet, decided to move his family to Fontainebleau, a safe haven of inspiration for several artists of this period. Here he would find more than just a respite from cholera; he would find inspiration for his artwork as well. He and Millet would become two of several artists associated with the Barbizon School, a loose association of artists focusing their work on nature and the depiction of peasants and animals. His earlier work already shows an inclination toward the love of nature, but surrounded by others seeking the same inspiration, he increasingly focused on painting rustic subjects. Jacque quickly became known as an animalier, or an animal painter. His favorite subjects were sheep, for which he is best known, but he also captured many other farm animals, including cows, horses, domestic fowl, and pigs.
Towards the end of his career his reputation and work earned him a gold medal at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, his final triumph over a series of third place medals at the annual Salons. His work had also crossed over to America where he found great success. As the years passed, he watched his colleagues pass away; those other artists who found the same inspiration in nature and at the village of Barbizon. He was one of the last representatives of the Barbizon School, always maintaining his enthusiasm and his way of creating even as the twentieth century closed in.
Jacque’s last Salon exhibition was in 1894. He died in Paris on May 7th, 1894.