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Born in 1838 to a glovemaker in Paris, Aimé-Jules Dalou attracted the attention of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, who directed him to the Petite Ecole in 1852 for his first artistic training. Carpeaux then presented him at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in March 1853 (until the late 1990s thought to occur the following year), where Dalou studied painting with Abel de Pujol (1785-1861) and sculpture with Carpeaux's own Ecole master, Duret, for three years. Though he officially acknowledged all three artists as teachers, Dalou always considered Carpeaux his real master. The curriculum and relationship particularly with Duret proved uncongenial for the younger artist. His failure to win the Prix de Rome after four tries, from 1861 to 1865, contributed to a lifelong hostility to the institutional power and vision of the Academy.
Instead, Dalou pursued the artistic values of the Petite Ecole in a multi-faceted career that blossomed after a decade of obscurity. He earned a livelihood in the 1860s with goldsmiths Fannière Frères and several decorators. He was among the legions of sculptors to produce the architectural decoration and figurative furniture for the new mansions of Second Empire Paris--notably the Hôtel Païva on the Champs-Elysées. Only the final entries among his five Salon appearances during the 1860s drew any significant attention. His Daphnis and Chloe, shown in 1869, and La Brodeuse, a third-class medal winner in 1870, were purchased by the government, though the marbles were never completed and both plasters were since destroyed.
Dalou's minor role in the Commune, principally as a curator at the Louvre in 1871, made him a persona non grata in Paris. He escaped retribution by fleeing with his family to London, where he lived until 1880, after receiving amnesty. Nonetheless, the French community in London welcomed him warmly, just as a more lenient French government of the mid-1870s included a bronze of Dalou's La Brodeuse among the nation's entries to the International Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia (as The Needle-Woman). Dalou eventually found wide success in Britain, thanks in part to French official support. His first and most vital boost, however, came from an old friend, long an expatriate in London, the painter Alphonse Legros (1837-1911), and his own entries in the various prestigious exhibitions of the city, beginning in the 1860s. He showed not only sculpture but around thirty works on paper at Dudley Gallery, a recent (mid 1990s) discovery, with few details known, that revises established views of his public professional activity and his relationship to drawing and painting. Though, like Legros, he spoke little English, Dalou began teaching modeling at the National Art Training School, South Kensington (renamed the Royal College of Art in 1896) in 1877, and then briefly at the South London School of Technical Art (called "Lambeth"). His instructive demonstrations and sheer example profoundly influenced a new generation of sculptors in Britain. Dalou helped to usher in a new approach to the medium, there termed "The New Sculpture," that closely allied sculpture and architecture, and gave high priority to both traditional craft and the new industrial idiom. He also gained favor as a portraitist and sculptor of genre subjects. His statuette of the Boulonnaise with a Branch (Castle Howard, Yorkshire, England) was one of his first to be acquired, by the earl of Carlisle, in 1871. In the late 1870s, thanks to Princess Louise, a student in Dalou's modeling class at South Kensington, the royal family commissioned a private memorial to Queen Victoria's grandchildren who had died in infancy (Windsor Castle). He subsequently executed his first public project in London, Charity (commissioned 1877), for a public drinking fountain behind the Royal Exchange.
Upon his return to France, Dalou found himself well-known and in demand. He devoted the remainder of his career largely to socially useful projects, particularly monuments and the portraiture of great men. The city of Paris commissioned the celebrated Triumph of the Republic (1879-1899; Place de la Nation) in addition to the official competition winner (1879-1883, bronze and stone; Place de la République) by the Morice brothers, sculptor Léopold (1846-1920) and architect Charles (1848-1908). Many other municipal commissions followed: among them, the colossal bas-reliefs of historical or allegorical subjects celebrating republican France (Mirabeau Responding to Dreux-Brézé in 1789, bronze relief, Chamber of Deputies; and Fraternity, marble, Musée du Petit Palais; both c. 1883); and homage to an influential director of Public Works (Monument to Alphand, inaugurated 1899, stone; avenue Foch, Paris). Dalou executed two of the most compelling tombs of those decades, recumbent figures of the radical activist Auguste Blanqui and the assassinated journalist Victor Noir (1885 and 1890, respectively; Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris). He worked for years on a personal project, the Monument to Workers, which was never executed--it remained in the state of sketches and models.
Dalou played a major role in French cultural life by providing influential alternatives to the Academy and the Salon as arbiters of modern art. He was a founding member of the Société des Artistes Français and later a founder of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. His contribution to the nation was officially rewarded with the highest rank of the Légion d'Honneur two years before his death, with the inauguration of the Triumph of Republic, in 1899.
Dalou is one of the handful of leading French sculptors of the late nineteenth century, ranking with Chapu and Mercié in reputation and in contribution to monumental sculpture. Where his colleagues' work has great consistency of subject and style, Dalou's has extraordinary range, absorbing a wide array of painterly and sculptural sources throughout his career. Most important among these was the work of Louis-François Roubiliac, an eminent eighteenth-century French sculptor working in Britain who was practically unknown in France, but whose work Dalou studied closely while in London. Dalou's vigorous plasticity, stylistic eclecticism, and modern figure types give exceptional life to his forms regardless of mode and scale. His expressive moods, subject matter, and sculptural format vary considerably even in his late career. The government commissions are as diverse in style as they are in sculptural category. Alongside the familiar patriotic works are Dalou's ebulliently neo-baroque Triumph of Silenus (1884, bronze; Jardin du Luxembourg) and his decorative vases manufactured by Sèvres for the Luxembourg buildings, the Great "Golden Age" Vase and the Vase with Garlands and Putti (the first, on deposit, Fort Mont-Valérien, near Paris; the latter, location unknown).
Dalou's famed republican or socialist politics, which he described in almost inconsistent terms throughout his career, gave a broadly liberal slant to his professional activities. Like earlier liberal sculptors (David d'Angers and Rude), he provided models free of charge for certain anti-despotic projects, notably Victor Noir's tomb monument. Dalou steadily aimed to benefit a broad-ranging public, to provide a public art that celebrated democratic virtues, both private and public, and to dignify labor and métier. The latter concern informs all aspects of his work. Encouraged by the Petite Ecole's respect for craft, Dalou advocated technical excellence and celebrated the host of specialists involved in the execution of a project; for him, the finished sculptural work was a significant collective enterprise, not the product of a single mind or hand. He gained semi-mythic fame as an engaged and self-critical craftsman. He destroyed works in progress, some of which are only known today thanks to his old friend, studio assistant, and successor as modeling instructor at South Kensington, Edouard Lantéri, who salvaged fragments, cast them in durable form, and distributed them throughout England and France without Dalou's direct participation.
Dalou's lofty moral and artistic ideals, which disdained marketable variants and serialization, were apparently sacrificed when his family's material well-being seemed at risk. He arranged to have small-scale works edited in limited numbers several times, beginning in the 1870s in London; towards the end of his life, Dalou sought to generate income to support his family upon his death. In the 1890s the sculptor contracted with the Parisian city government and the Maison Susse for bronze serialization of three small-scale models, two of them reductions of public monuments. After his wife's death, Dalou arranged a network of resources to support his severely handicapped daughter. He placed her in the custody of the public Orphanage of the Arts, and bequeathed to the institution his studio contents as an income-producing asset (primarily the reproduction rights with a percentage of each sale for his daughter). He made a similar arrangement with Giraudon for publishable photographs of his work. After his death in 1902, Dalou's executors approached other bronze founders and expanded the arrangement with Susse to include some preliminary works from his studio in order to begin the flow of income. Susse also marketed some large-scale marbles carved by Dalou's studio chief. The small-scale works, however, became popular and, as a result, changed the image of the artist. The abundance of serial works and preliminary sketches from the studio, bought by the Musée du Petit Palais in late 1906, revealed the private side of Dalou that he had resisted making public during his lifetime, and formed the basis of his reputation in the following decades. [This is the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]