The Arnold family lived at the end of the Thur valley in the Vosges Mountains. In 1897 when Adolphe was born, his father, Martin, was a factory worker who barely earned enough to feed his three children. Extreme poverty had forced the family to leave the mountain farm for the village. Martin also wanted to escape tuberculosis, which had killed nearly all his siblings. He feared for his children’s health, especially for his son Adolphe, who was a very weak child and who had become very attached to his parents. One day Adolphe’s mother, Odile, received the devastating news that Martin had dropped dead at the factory. He had had an argument with his boss over the dismissal of a worker who had six small children at home. Adolphe’s father could not stand by and courageously fought for his co-worker’s welfare, but the emotional strain cost him his life.
This family trauma deeply marked Adolphe, then in his early teens. His mother had no choice but to go to work in the same factory where her husband had died. Martin’s only remaining sibling, Paul Arnold, could not work because of the crippling bone disease rickets. He came to care for the three children. But to move into his brother’s home in the village of Krüth, he and the widowed Odile would have to marry; and so Adolphe’s Uncle Paul became his step-father.
Adolphe’s mother laboured at the factory from early in the morning until late at night, bringing home a pittance salary and her bitter resentment. When the workers went on strike for the first time, Odile joined the protest against abusive working conditions and went on a protest march in the factory. Later that week, as usual, she went to confession. “Is that all?” the priest asked her. “What about the strike? Did you join in?” Surprised, she replied, “Yes.” The confessional door flew open and she got a slap in the face. She heard the priest say, “That’s for this time. Next time you’ll lose your job!” The widow returned home with a red cheek and the story of her deep disappointment. The Arnolds continued to struggle through the early spring, living on dried apples and pears, which were cooked and served with milk and potatoes instead of meat.
Adolphe, just skin and bones, had no strength for factory or farm work. But the lad exhibited artistic talents. His invalid stepfather decided that the family would sacrifice to send Adolphe to art school in Mulhouse. Every morning the 14-year-old boy left home with a piece of bread and a bite of cheese for his lunch. Whether through deep snow or pouring rain, he made the 10-km walk (6 miles) to catch the 7 o’clock train.
Determined to show his gratitude to his family, Adolphe worked hard and got high grades. At the end of his second year, he presented an oil painting, 100 x 60 cm (38 x 24 inches) large, at a school exhibition. That day, the manager of the textile printery came looking for a prospective recruit. Adolphe, age 16, took first prize. Everyone applauded as the director handed him the gold medal in a black box. Holding the box to his chest, Adolphe returned to his seat. His proud stepfather went to take a look and discovered that the gold medal had turned silver! After the ceremony, Paul and his stepson went to the director, thinking the boxes had been accidentally switched. Without apologizing the school director responded, “I gave the gold medal to the son of So-and-So, a man of great reputation in town.” Looking down at the Arnolds, he continued, “Who are you? What does your name mean to anyone…? If you don’t want the silver medal, just leave it here for someone else!”
That summer of 1914, Adolphe was hired by the art department of Gros-Roman et Marozeau in Wesserling in Alsace. The job only lasted a short time, and for a good reason.