A native Parisian, Hébert apparently lived and worked in the capital until his death. He was born in 1828, and studied sculpture privately, with his father Pierre (1804-1869) and Jean-Jacques Feuchère (1807-1852), both of whom pursued modestly successful careers in the Salon and as public sculptors beginning in the 1830s. Hébert learned extensively from their very divergent paths. Whereas Pierre Hébert, a laborer's son, trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Feuchère emerged within the art-bronze industry of his family, where he also prospered, providing various founders with models throughout his career. The latter was, in fact, one of the most masterful practitioners of the romantic anti-classical historical idiom, and particularly of the neo-medieval macabre; Feuchère is best known today for his sinuous figure of Satan, a serial bronze in various sizes. Emile Hébert is the able successor to both sculptors in all such categories.
Hébert began his Salon career during the Second Republic, with portrait busts of eminent sixteenth-century figures that were immediately purchased by the government. He then exhibited statuettes representing a variety of subjects--genre, classical mythologies, and the satanic. Well respected in official circles by the mid-1850s, Hébert was chosen, along with his father, to represent France in the Fine-Arts section of the 1855 Paris Universal Exposition. The state commissioned or acquired several of Hébert's works: a Bacchus for the Tuileries Palace (1866, present location unknown); personifications for the facade of the théâtre du Vaudeville, Paris; The Oracle, a marble relief (vestibule, Musée de Vienne, Isère); portrait-statues of great French writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries such as Jean-François Regnard (1880, facade, Hôtel de Ville, Paris) and François Rabelais (erected 1882, Quai Jeanne d'Arc, Chinon). Anne Pingeot discovered hitherto-unknown allegories by Hébert of anatomy and Etruscan art on the facade of the Nouveau Louvre (Pavillon Sully and between the Pavillons Daru and Denon, respectively, the latter signed and dated 1856). The sculptor showed regularly in the Salon until his death in 1893. Though he appears not to have had strong critical impact in Third-Republic exhibitions, the government of that time repeatedly chose Hébert's work to represent the nation internationally; his state-owned works appeared in the French Fine-Arts section of the 1873 Vienna Universal Exposition.
Thanks to Catherine Chevillot's unpublished research on nineteenth-century French foundries, it emerges that Hébert's lifetime reputation instead rests heavily upon his prolific work for the art-bronze industry throughout his career. Unlike most entrepreneurial animaliers and Carpeaux, who cast and marketed their own works, Hébert produced models for edition in bronze, plaster, and terracotta by other founders for at least thirty years. Though they frequently obtained reproduction rights, founders commonly identified Hébert as the sculptor in the catalogue and on the casts. He is recorded as providing models for a founder known only as E. Vittoz (a bronze Mephistopheles, for example); for another known only as E. Sévenier (a clock ornament of Hide-and-Seek, in addition to busts and groups); and for Auguste Gouge (Oedipus and the Sphinx, in bronze and plaster variants). Hébert's best-recorded and apparently longest-lived relationship, however, was with a founder today known only as G. Servant, whom the sculptor supplied with new models and variants of his Salon entries from the 1860s until Servant sold the business in 1882. Hébert's serial designs were thus seen and reviewed, possibly triggering orders at the founders' displays at the international exhibitions in London and on the continent through at least the 1870s. Nonetheless the studio sale after his death in 1893 reveals he retained reproduction rights and molds to many models, including his celebrated group Et Toujours!! Et Jamais!!
Known in various materials and sizes, Et Toujours!! Et Jamais!! remains Hébert's best-known work today. The plaster, shown in the Salon of 1859 (present location unknown), and the bronze, shown in the Salon of 1863 (possibly the 150-centimeter cast at the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence), riveted the critics of the time, including Charles Baudelaire. Its poetically enigmatic title, darkly erotic "Death and the Maiden" treatment, Hugo-esque play on beauty and the grotesque, fluid, sinuous forms, and rippling textures reflect the mid-century romantic resurgence. Hébert, however, commanded a variety of modes. He was a superb modeler of the human form and of ornament, and manipulated both with great complexity, whether in monumental format or in small scale. Hébert's serial work especially reveals his modeling skill. His art bronzes range in subject from ancient mythologies--classical, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian--to contemporary athletes: boxers, rowers, champions. The sports figures often display the florid neo-baroque realism of his architectural decoration; so too the humorous moral allegories such as Ecole de filles [Girls' School]. Hébert often adjusted his style to historical subject: severe neo-Greek handling in his Thetis, Oracle, and Oedipus and the Sphinx; and stylized and rigid neo-Egyptian handling in his busts of Rameses and Isis. Some of his most intriguing work is in this historicizing mode, which provides especially useful insights into nineteenth-century French orientalism. Models in this vein for the founder Servant often reflect the eclecticism of better-known orientalist works by other artists in sculpture, painting, and theater that display an arresting mix of styles and ornament. However, Hébert also produced compositions that are tantalizingly advertised in sales catalogues as "restitutions" of known museum pieces: two sizes of the so-called Trophonius bust from the "Musée Assyrien" (the newly formed Assyrian collection at the Louvre), for example. Though unknown today, such a model could be a freely interpretative caprice on a known fragment or an earnest reconstruction.
Hébert's frequently poetic approach to his Salon works, sophisticated historicism of his serial work, and evident familiarity with museum collections suggest he was deeply engaged in the contemporary world of learning. [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: 3:142-144.
Stump, Jeanne. "The Sculpture of Émile Hébert: Themes and Variations." Register of the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas 5/10 (Spring 1982): 28-61.
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: 276-277.