Jules Dalou came from a working-class family of Huguenot background, who raised him in an atmosphere of secularity and Republican socialism. He was the pupil of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, who sponsored him for the École des Beaux-Arts, and of François-Joseph Duret; he combined the vivacity and richness of Carpeaux, for "he was, technically, one of the most distinguished modellers of his time", with the academic insistence on harmonious outlines and scholarly familiarity with the work of Giambologna and others of Duret; he also frequented the studio of Auguste Rodin. Dalou is recognized as one of the most brilliant virtuosos of nineteenth-century France, admired as much for his perceptiveness, execution and arrangement, as for his unpretentious realism.
Dalou first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1867, but he made no secret of his working-class sympathies, which obstructed his career under the Second Empire: he was repeatedly refused the Prix de Rome that opened sculptors' careers to future official commissions; he made a quiet living providing decorative sculpture for the structures that lined Paris's new boulevards and providing wax models for jewelry. He married Irma Vuillier, a partnership that sustained him throughout his life; they had one daughter, Georgette, who was mentally handicapped and required constant care. Dalou's Daphnis and Chloe shown at the Paris salon, was purchased by the State.
Having identified himself too publicly with the Paris Commune of 1871, as curator at the Musée du Louvre under Gustave Courbet, he took refuge in England in November 1871, where he rapidly made a name through his appointment teaching sculpture in the art school at South Kensington. In absentia, he was convicted by the French government of participation in the Commune and was given a life sentence.
In England Dalou laid the foundation of that great improvement which resulted in the development of the post-classical British school of sculpture, and at the same time executed a remarkable series of terra-cotta statuettes and groups, such as A French Peasant Woman (of which a bronze version under the title of Maternity was erected outside the Royal Exchange), or the group of two Boulogne women called The Reader and A Woman of Boulogne telling her Beads and a series of informal terracotta portrait busts of friends and acquaintances, rarely signed. He was commissioned to produce a large public fountain and for Queen Victoria, a monument to two young granddaughters in her private chapel at Windsor (1878).
He returned to France in 1879, after the declaration of amnesty, and produced a number of masterpieces. His great relief of Mirabeau replying to M. de Dreux-Brézé (illustrating an encounter of 23 June 1789, which was exhibited in 1883 and later at the Palais Bourbon, and the highly decorative panel, Triumph of the Republic, were followed in 1885 by The Procession of Silenus (illustration, right below) . For the city of Paris he executed his most elaborate and splendid achievement, the vast monument, The Triumph of the Republic (detail, left), erected, after twenty years work, in the Place de la Nation, showing a symbolical figure of the Republic, aloft on her car, drawn by lions led by Liberty, attended by Labour and Justice, and followed by Peace. It is somewhat in the taste of the Louis XIV period, ornate, but with a forward thrust to the ensemble and exquisite in every detail. Within a few days there was also inaugurated his great Monument to Alphand (1899), which almost equalled in the success achieved the monument to Delacroix in the Luxembourg Gardens. Another of his famous works adorns the grave of Victor Noir at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. It has become a fertility symbol. His last significant work was a statue of Lazare Hoche in Quiberon.
Dalou, who was awarded the Grand Prix of the Exposition Universelle (1889), was made an officer of the Legion of Honor,; he was one of the founders of the New Salon (Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts), and was the first president of the sculpture section. In portraiture, whether statues or busts, his work is not less remarkable.
On his passing in 1902, Jules Dalou was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.
- Grand Paysan, bronze, 197 x 70 x 68 cm
- Femme nue lisant dans un fauteuil, 1878, bronze
- Liseuse, vers 1875, bronze
- Couseuse - Travailleur debout tenant une bêche, bronze
- Tonnelier avec des cordes, 1883, bronze, for a projected Monument to Labour
- Rebatteur de faux, 1883, bronze, for the Monument to Labour