He was born in La Rochelle. After leaving school he studied for some years under Louis Cabat, the landscape painter. Fromentin was one of the earliest pictorial interpreters of Algeria, having been able, while quite young, to visit the land and people that suggested the subjects of most of his works, and to store his memory as well as his portfolio with the picturesque and characteristic details of North African life. In 1849 he obtained a medal of the second class.
In 1852 he paid a second visit to Algeria, accompanying an archaeological mission, and then completed that minute study of the scenery of the country and of the habits of its people which enabled him to give to his after-work the realistic accuracy that comes from intimate knowledge. In a certain sense his works are contributions to ethnological science as much as they are works of art.
Fromentin, who maintained that 'art is the expression of the invisible by means of the visible', was much influenced in style by Eugène Delacroix. His works are distinguished by striking composition, great dexterity of handling and brilliancy of colour. In them is given with great truth and refinement the unconscious grandeur of barbarian and animal attitudes and gestures. His later works, however, show signs of an exhausted vein and of an exhausted spirit, accompanied or caused by physical enfeeblement.
But it must be observed that Fromentin 's paintings show only one side of a genius that was perhaps even more felicitously expressed in literature, though with less profusion. Dominique, first published in the Revue des deux mondes in 1862, and dedicated to George Sand, is remarkable among the fiction of the century for delicate and imaginative observation and for emotional earnestness.
Fromentin 's other literary works are Visites artistiques (1852); Simples Pèlerinages (1856); Un été dans le Sahara (1857); Une année dans le Sahel (1858); and Les Maîtres d'autrefois (1876), the last an influential appreciation of Early Netherlandish painting and the Northern Baroque to Rembrandt . In 187he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Academy. He died suddenly at La Rochelle on August 27, 1876.