Jean Forain was the son of a painter and decorator and was apprenticed to a visiting card engraver. He studied briefly under Gérôme and Carpeaux at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and regularly visited the Louvre, where he copied works by the masters. It is said that for a time he made a precarious living by selling small drawings in the style of Grévin. He went on to collaborate on various publications as a draughtsman and columnist, starting in 1876 on La Cravache and then collaborating on the newspapers Le Journal Amusant, Le Figaro and L'Écho de Paris. This introduced him to the diverse worlds of Paris society - the world of the theatre, of shows, and of literature - where he wryly noted the habits and shortcomings particular to each. This led him to follow a route very characteristic of this period, already seen in the work of Steinlen, Caran d'Ache and Toulouse-Lautrec in the journals La Pléiade, La Vogue and La Revue Blanche.
His work draws a picture of the society of the period, not in a strictly imitative fashion but in the form of the 'dessin-charge' or mild caricature. In 1880 he illustrated Parisian Sketches (Croquis Parisiens) by J.-K. Huysmans. The newspapers on which he collaborated did not allow him sufficient freedom to express the causticity he felt, but the creation of the Courrier Français and later the Rire allowed him to give free rein to his particular eloquence. The political and financial scandal of the bankruptcy proceedings against the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique in 1892 provided him with rich ground from which to observe wheeler-dealers and shady politicians swimming in the troubled waters of the legal world. He decided to assemble his drawings in thematic albums which together provide a tableau of the society of his time; these were, in 1892 L'Album Forain, La Comédie Parisienne, in 1893 Les Temps Difficiles, Nous, Vous, Eux and in 1897 Doux Pays. In the Dreyfus affair Forain was on the side of those opposed to a retrial, and in 1898-1899 he and Caran d'Ache founded Pss't ! which would become a vehicle of anti-Semitism - more ferocious than skilful - but one that would always find its market. Forain also founded the magazine Le Fifre and was one of the founder members of the Society of Humorists (Société des Humoristes). From 1914 to 1920 he produced a long series of illustrations on World War I for Le Figaro, in which he contrasted the heroism of the soldiers on the Front with the cowardice of those shirking in the background. He then underwent a religious conversion and devoted the final years of his life to pious subjects in which he was unable to employ the mainstay of his talent: his caustic wit and even a certain degree of spite. He was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur in 1893 and received numerous honours, including election to the Institut de France.
In addition to his many collaborations on magazines and journals of the period, Forain produced etchings and 99 lithographs, including some posters. Some of the albums of drawings he published contain series: La Comédie Parisienne, a series of 250 drawings, and Les Temps Difficiles, a series of 99 drawings. He also illustrated literary works, including: Les Pantins de Paris by Gustave Coquiot in 1920 and Les Tribunaux by Georges Courteline, 1931. He also collaborated on the illustration of La Vraie Tentation du Grand Saint Antoine, 1880, by Paul Arène, Chansons Fin de Siècle, 1891, by J. Oudot and Montmartre Immortel, 1922 by E. Bayard.
Early in his career Forain painted watercolours inspired by Japanese layouts. The somewhat neglected next stage of his career was as a painter and pastellist alongside his work as a caricaturist. It is thought that his admiration for Manet and the influence of Degas made their mark on his expansive technique, his incisive style and the choice of subjects in his pastel and gouache-heightened watercolours, his oil paintings and the clever, colourful studies that followed, such as those set in the wings of theatres, music cafés and bars.
He exhibited with his Impressionist friends Monet and Degas at the official Salon in 1884 and 1885 and, according to some sources, also in 1879, 1880 and 1881.
1956, Museum of Springfield, Massachusetts
1978, Musée Marmottan, Paris
1995, Fondation de l'Hermitage, Lausanne
1996, Jean-Louis Forain: The Impressionist Years, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
2003, Fondation Angladon-Dubrujeaud, Avignon
2003, Musée Yves Brayer, Les Baux-de-Provence
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Aberdeen (AG and Mus.): La Salle d'Attente (oil on canvas)
Boston (MFA): Evidence in the Case (oil on canvas); Witness Confounded (1926, oil on canvas)
Bristol (City Mus. and AG): The Un-wed Mother (c. 1909)
Chicago (AI): Tight-Rope Walker (c. 1885, oil on canvas)
Ghent (Mus. voor Schone Kunsten): Dancers (oil on canvas)
London (Nat. Gal.): The Tub (c. 1886-1887, oil on canvas); Legal Assistance (c. 1900-1912, oil on canvas)
Los Angeles (County MA): The Picture Dealer (c. 1920, oil on canvas); Self-portrait (1922, oil on canvas)
Memphis (Dixon Gal.): collection of over 50 works
New York (Metropolitan Mus. of Art): Recess of the Court (oil on canvas)
Paris (Mus. d'Orsay): At the Nouvelle Athènes Café (watercolour); German Soldier in a Cemetery (oil on canvas); The Magistrates Court (oil on canvas); Portrait of the Artist (1906, oil on canvas); The Plea (1907, oil on canvas); The Studio (oil on canvas); The Widower (oil on canvas)
Philadelphia (MA): The Hearing (c. 1900, oil on canvas)
Southampton (City AG): The Fisherman (1884, oil on canvas)
St Petersburg (Hermitage): Music-Hall (1895-1896, oil on canvas)
Washington DC (Georgetown University): Backstage at the Opera Aida (c. 1898, pastel/paper)
Washington DC (NGA): Behind the Scenes (c. 1880, oil on canvas); Standing Woman with a Fan (c. 1880-1890); The Artist's Wife Fishing (1896, oil on canvas); The Petition (1906, oil on canvas); The Stockade (c. 1908, oil on canvas); The Requisition (c. 1919, oil on canvas); Artist and Model (1925, oil on canvas); The Charleston (1926, oil on canvas)