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Joseph Chinard was born in 1756 into a family of master silk weavers and merchants in Lyon, where he studied under the court painter Donat Nonotte (1708-1785) at the Ecole royale de dessin. At the age of fifteen he caught the attention of the sculptor Barthélemy Blaise (1738-1819), who employed him on restoration work for the Hotel de Ville. His first independent works were ecclesiastical commissions in the Baroque style. These included colossal statues of Saint Bruno and Saint John, made for the Carthusian monastery at Selignac in 1782 (respectively church of Saint-Denis, near Bourg-en-Bresse, and private collection, Bourg-en-Bresse; partly destroyed). In 1784 Chinard left for Rome, supported by private patrons including the the chevalier de la Font de Juis, for whom he produced copies after the antique. His reputation grew in 1786 when he won first prize in the Concorso Balestra of the Accademia di San Luca, the first Frenchman to do so in sixty years. His winning sculpture, a terracotta Perseus and Andromeda, remains in the Accademia collection (enlargements in marble--unfinished--and terracotta at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon). In Rome he also began to produce the portrait medallions and busts in which he would reveal his greatest gifts.
In 1787 Chinard returned to Lyon, where he married the embroiderer Antoinette Perret the following year. In 1791 he departed again for Rome with various commissions, including candelabra bases for the merchant van Risambourg representing Apollo Trampling Superstition and Jupiter Striking Down Aristocracy. The terracotta models for these (both Paris, Musée Carnavalet), seen as religious attacks, led to his arrest in September 1792. Imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo, he was released and expelled from Rome in November. Back in Lyon Chinard received a hero's welcome; but, ironically, works he designed soon thereafter for his native city's Hôtel de Ville were perceived as counter-revolutionary. As a result he was denounced and imprisoned in October 1793. Acquitted in 1794, Chinard went on to serve the republic, the directoire, and the empire as organizer of civic festivals and designer of patriotic monuments.
Busy with the public allegorical productions and monuments that he apparently regarded as his most important achievements, Chinard also worked steadily as a portrait sculptor. First consul Napoleon Bonaparte, visiting Lyon with his wife Josephine in January 1802, found a newly completed marble bust of himself by Chinard in his room (private collection, Switzerland; plasters at Musée National du Ch(teau de Malmaison and elsewhere). Henceforth Chinard became the favorite portrait sculptor of Napoleon's family, creating and replicating busts in terracotta, plaster, and marble. Some of the marbles were produced at Carrara, Italy, where Chinard opened an atelier in 1804 under the patronage of Napoleon's sister Elisa, the princess Bacciochi. He was expelled in 1808, accused of marble profiteering.
From 1795 until 1807 Chinard often stayed in Paris, sometimes at the home of the Lyonnais banker Jacques Récamier. His sensuous yet reserved portrait busts and medallions of the celebrated beauty Juliette Récamier, the subject of David's famous full-length painting of 1800 (Paris, Musee du Louvre), are among his masterpieces (marble, of uncertain date in early nineteenth century, in Lyon; various versions in terracotta, plaster, and bronze).
Chinard became a member of the Institut de France around 1795, and was among the first members of the Lyon Academy after its re-establishment as the Atheneum in 1800. He was named
professor of sculpture in 1807 at the Ecole des Arts du Dessin at Lyon, by imperial decree. After his expulsion from Carrara he stayed in Lyon, but participated regularly in the Paris salons. A widower since 1794, he married Marie Berthaud in 1811. At his death in 1813 of a heart attack or aneurism, he left many unfinished pieces of sculpture and sketches awaiting execution. Among his last works was a marble statuette self-portrait, draped as a classical philosopher, which was placed on his tomb (1812-1813; terracotta sketch at Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon).
Prolific and uneven, Chinard was the most important French sculptor working outside Paris in his time, and one of the great portrait sculptors of the Napoleonic period. In spite of neo-classical pretentions in his statues of gods and designs for public monuments, his style for most of his career kept a delicacy, refinement, and attention to naturalistic detail that binds him to the eighteenth century. In this he contrasts with contemporaries like Antonio Canova, who tended far more to subordinate individual appearances to a classical ideal. Adept at meticulous modeling in clay, he showed a particular gift for portraits of women. The best of his female portraits, which include the various versions of Madame Recamier (a terracotta example is in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Santa Monica) and Empress Josephine (a terracotta example is in the Cleveland Museum of Art), are graceful and vivacious, yet reserved. An astute observer with a capacity for psychological penetration, especially in images of men, Chinard usually tempered realism with a genial sympathy for his sitters. Most of his many public works survive only in the form of models (primarily in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon). [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]