Henri-Michel-Antoine Chapu, born in 1833, left his native village of Le Mée as an adolescent, when his parents moved to Paris as the concierges for the marquis de Vogüé. In 1848 he enrolled in the Petite Ecole to learn the tapestry profession. He changed professional course within the year and successfully competed for admission to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1849. Chapu studied sculpture with James Pradier until the latter's death in 1852, then pursued sculpture and painting simultaneously with Francisque-Joseph Duret and Léon Cogniet (1794-1880). In 1855 he won the Prix de Rome in sculpture and moved to the Villa Medici late that year.
In contrast with the tumultuous career of his fellow pensionnaire, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, who became a lifelong friend, Chapu's career proceeded steadily towards success. The marble of his final Villa Medici envoi, Mercury Inventing the Caduceus (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), won a third-class prize in the Salon of 1863. Commissions for private and State projects began immediately upon his return to Paris in 1861. It was not until after 1870, however, that Chapu was in demand as a sculptor. His reputation skyrocketed with his greatest Salon successes, Joan of Arc at Domrémy, first shown in 1870 (plaster; Musée Henri Chapu, Le Mée), and La Jeunesse, the central allegory of a cenotaph for painter Henri Regnault (1843-1871) and other academy students killed in the Franco-Prussian War. The marble La Jeunesse won the gold medal for sculpture in the Salon of 1875 as well as subsequent accolades after the monument was inaugurated in 1876 at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Major commissions for the decoration of civil, commercial, and church architecture and fountains emerged soon after. Chapu's most acclaimed work in France and abroad, however, was his monumental funerary sculpture. The most famous are his initial projects with single-figure personifications for monumental stela (La Jeunesse, La Pensée, and L'Immortalité) and the gisants of high-ranking clergy and former royalty (notably that of the duchesse de Nemours, originally at Weybridge, Surrey [now Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool], and the duchesse d'Orléans at the Royal Chapel, Dreux). A replica of L'Immortalité, a nude male youth representing Jean Reynaud's belief in metempsychosis (astral migration of the soul after death), was placed on Chapu's tomb in the cemetery of Le Mée.
A member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts since 1880, he was elected its President in 1889. He had been a chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur since 1867, and was promoted to officer in 1872. Chapu's voluminous production was made possible by a large studio, with extensive personnel for the demanding technical work of his medium. Some were students who were more like medieval apprentices than observers. Contrary to the Ecole system, Chapu firmly believed in the artist's responsibility to master and practice sculpture as a craft; he practiced that credo himself. A superb craftsman, he remained directly involved in almost every phase of work.
Little is known about the extensive serial edition of Chapu's oeuvre. Commercial enterprises--notably Thiébaut and Barbedienne--produced bronzes and marbles of individual figures, as reduced variants, well into the twentieth century. Some may date from the last years of the artist's life. He died in 1891.
Chapu's artistic idiom was the iconic human figure; narrative was rare. In the realm of monumental art, his art negotiated an effective course between tradition and modernity for his generation. Whether historical or modern (Steam, 1889, Musée National du Grand Palais, Paris), his subjects beyond portraiture were elevated or sober, handled with a refinement that drew largely upon classical and Renaissance sources. It was an approach that avoided extremes: no violent gesture or expression; fastidious detail was absorbed within broad planes and clear outlines. Instead, Chapu's figures have a living, fluid grace, thanks to a mastery of anatomy, of the formal power of three-dimensional mass, and the nuances of surface handling. [This is the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Fidière, Octave. Chapu. Sa Vie et son oeuvre. Paris, 1894.
Lami, Stanislas. Dictionnaire des sculpteurs de l'école française au dix-neuvième siècle. 4 vols. Paris, 1914-1921: 1(1914):328-342.
Centenaire Henri Chapu. Exh. cat. Musée Henri Chapu and Musée de Melun. Melun, 1991.
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: 87.