Mercié, a native of Toulouse, where he was born in 1845, studied sculpture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris with François Jouffroy (1806-1882) and Alexandre Falguière (1831-1900). His Salon debut, with a modest portrait medallion of a young girl, took place the same year he won the Prix de Rome, 1868. The youth's envois immediately drew the honors normally accrued over time by an established artist, launching an exceptional career even for an Ecole-trained professional. When he showed his David in the Salon of 1872, Mercié was awarded the cross of the Légion d'Honneur and a first-class medal; his figure was purchased and cast in bronze for the prestigious national museum of living artists, the Musée du Luxembourg (now at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris). His next envoi, the Gloria Victis, created a sensation from the very moment it appeared in Rome, and was immediately acquired and executed in multiples, as memorials throughout France for the dead of the Franco-Prussian War.
As prolific as he was popular with the public and with patrons, Mercié was much in demand as a monumental sculptor. He executed architectural decoration, such as the Genius of the Arts (c. 1877, bronze relief; facade of the Palais du Louvre, Paris) and Fame, the colossal gilt-bronze figure for the dome of the Palais du Trocadéro, also Paris (1878). He decorated the tombs of some of the most eminent figures of his century: historian Jules Michelet (date, location?); national president and historian Adolphe Thiers (c. 1879 and c. 1891, both Père-Lachaise cemetery, Paris); and Louis-Philippe and his wife Marie-Amélie, and two of their sons (dates not known, Chapelle Royale, Dreux). Mercié produced yet more celebrated war memorials, notably his Quand Même! (inaugurated 1884, Place d'Armes, Belfort) and the bronze group commemorating the defense of Châteaudun (inaugurated 1897, promenade du Mail, Châteaudun), as well as a host of portrait statues of modern politicians (notably that of Jules Ferry, Saint-Dié, Vosges) and, for her native village of Domrémy, a memorial to Joan of Arc in front of her home. The artist also won critical and official acclaim for paintings shown in the Salons of the 1880s and 1890s.
Mercié received most of the major institutional awards of his time. He won the highest medals at the universal expositions; election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts (1889); a professorship at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts; election to grand officier of the Légion d'Honneur; and in 1913 the presidency of the Société des Artistes Françaises. Along with Chapu--whose career is closely intertwined with his as peer, collaborator, and preceding faculty at the Ecole--and Dalou, Mercié was one of the most successful and prominent sculptors of the period into World War I. He died in Paris in 1916.
His work varied little stylistically over the decades, lending the elegance and animation of Florentine Renaissance sculpture to his modern figure types. Its often sensitive conception struck a powerful chord nationwide with the public, authorities, and many critics. His celebrated monumental works also translated effectively into serial reductions, their neo-Florentine grace often given a precious finish and sumptuous patinas and pedestals. Many were edited soon after the monuments appeared, were much in demand, and continue to circulate abundantly on the market today. Despite the growing interest in his work among scholars, a serious critical study of Mercié has yet to be published (as of 1998).
[This is the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Lami, Stanislas. Dictionnaire des sculpteurs de l'école française au dix-neuvième siècle. 4 vols. Paris, 1914-1921: 3:431-436.
Fusco, Peter. "Marius-Jean-Antonin Mercié." In The Romantics to Rodin: French Nineteenth-Century Sculpture from North American Collections. Peter Fusco and H.W. Janson, eds. Exh. cat. 5 venues. New York, 1980: 303.
Vogt, Christiane. "Un Artiste oublié: Antonin Mercié." In La Sculpture du XIX Siècle, Une Mémoire Retrouvée. Rencontres de l'Ecole du Louvre. Paris, 1986.
Butler, Ruth, and Suzanne Glover Lindsay, with Alison Luchs, Douglas Lewis, Cynthia J. Mills, and Jeffrey Weidman. European Sculpture of the Nineteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2000: 292.