Pradier was born in 1790 in Geneva to a family of horologists, like his celebrated namesake Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). He apprenticed as a watchcase engraver and then trained at Geneva's Ecole de Dessin before joining his elder brother, engraver Charles-Simon Pradier, in Paris around 1807-1808. He entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and worked with painter Baron Gérard, who remained a vital influence and ally, and studied sculpture with François-Frédéric Lemot, won the Prix de Rome in 1813, and stayed at the Villa Medici as a pensionnaire until late 1818. His successful career began immediately upon his return, thanks to his Salon debut in 1819 with two works executed in Rome, the plaster Bacchante and Centaur (lost) and the marble Bacchante (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen), which earned him the gold medal for sculpture that year. His steady stream of Salon entries throughout his career amply demonstrated Pradier's mastery of a variety of sculptural modes. He garnered some of the most important public commissions of the Restoration and July Monarchy: the Rousseau monument, Ile Rousseau, Geneva (1834); a commemorative monument to the murdered duc de Berry for the cathedral of Saint-Louis (1821) and numerous portrait statues for Louis-Philippe's Galeries Historiques, both Versailles; four bas-reliefs of Fame for the Arc de Triomphe, Place de l'Etoile (1829), the monumental seated figures of Strasbourg and Lille for the Place de la Concorde (completed 1836), the south pediment of the Palais du Luxembourg (commissioned 1840), and twelve colossal Victories for Napoleon's tomb at the Invalides (commissioned 1843), all in Paris. He executed portrait statues, busts, and statuettes of the royal family and many contemporary luminaries in the political and cultural arenas. Despite Pradier's many efforts, however, he failed to win the most coveted State commissions, notably the pediment of the Madeleine in Paris (a competition project in which he refused to participate on principle), and the most important royal funerary commissions--the funerary statues for Louis-Philippe's popular heir apparent, the duc d'Orléans, who died accidentally in 1842.
Despite his complaints of official neglect, Pradier was showered with professional honors and powerful posts. In 1827 he was elected member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, given a studio at the Institut, and made professor of sculpture at the Ecole, teaching legions of students who consequently prospered in the artistic world of mid-nineteenth-century France. Pradier became chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur in 1828. His Salon entries were steadily purchased by the State and distributed throughout the national museums in France. By the time of his death in 1852, Pradier was considered one of the kingpins of modern French sculpture, along with David d'Angers and Rude, and a critical benchmark within the contemporary debates on the medium in modern times.
Pradier was also a canny and ambitious entrepreneur in the realm of serial edition. His work became known internationally through the vast number of small-scale works that he distributed throughout his career, some reductions of his large-scale pieces and others special designs for this market, and primarily as bronzes.
Even during his lifetime, Pradier's art was seen to exemplify the most fundamental struggles in modern French sculpture through mid-century: the intransigence of the antique before the "therapeutic" power of romantic modernity; and the sensuality so reviled as corrupt and trivial by the social liberals of his generation. Within that framework, Pradier echoed the lyrical erotic works by artists of the prior generation, notably Canova, David, and those favored by Josephine Bonaparte and her circle. He also opened the way for other artists working in this vein in the 1840s and beyond, such as Clésinger and Carpeaux. Revisionist scholarship of the 1990s has shed considerable light on Pradier's work in other categories. His approach often changed in accordance with sculptural mode. His monumental work displays a sober and ideal grandeur, yet his portrait statuettes eschew the neoclassical idiom altogether for the informal demeanor and detailed physiognomy and dress of everyday modern life. Pradier's most familiar mode, the mythological female figure in seductive poses that dominate his Salon entries and non-portrait serial work--the epitome of what was then called "antiquité voluptueuse"--has a lyricism that becomes movingly elegiac in some of his funerary works. The most radical in that respect is his Comte de Beaujolais, for the Galeries Historiques de Versailles (on deposit at the Chapelle Royale, Dreux) and Beaujolais' tomb at the church of Saint-Jean, Malta. It is a contemporary image of melancholy, portraying a sensitive youth disinherited by the massive upheaval of modern times who dies in exile, dreaming of his native land. Even at their most hieratic, Pradier's figures suggest extraordinary anatomical pliancy. Their naturalism plays against an equally strong formal presence: in the beauty of contours and internal rhythms, some broadly restless, some with riveting coiled energy; the decorative handling of hair and drapery; the assertive materiality and technical excellence regardless of mode and scale. Pradier was committed to his craft, finishing some of his celebrated marbles himself and demanding technical excellence in the serial works under his control. [This is the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Lami, Stanislas. Dictionnaire des sculpteurs de l'école française au dix-neuvième siècle. 4 vols. Paris, 1914-1921: 1:100-112.
Garnier, Guillaume. James Pradier. Unpublished diss., Ecole national des Chartes. Paris, 1978.
Siler, Douglas. James Pradier, Correspondence. 2 vols. Geneva, 1984.
Statues de chair: Sculptures de James Pradier. Exh. cat. Musée d'Art et d'Histoire and Musée du Luxembourg. Geneva and Paris, 1985.
Lemaistre, Isabelle. "Pradier (Jean-Jacques dit James)." In Un âge d'or des arts décoratifs 1814-1848. Exh. cat. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1991: 530-531.
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: 298-299.