Born in Le Mée-sur-Seine into modest circumstances, Chapu moved to Paris with his family and in 1847 entered the Petit École with the intention of studying drawing and becoming an interior decorator. There his talents began to be recognized and he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in 1849. In 1850 he began working and studying with a well-known sculptor James Pradier.
His statues Mercury of 1861 and Jeanne d'Arc of 1870 (in which she was represented as a peasant girl) were his first big successes, and led to many commissions thereafter. He is also known for his medals, and led the French revival in the medal as an artistic form.
At least four full-scale reproductions of Jeanne d'Arc are on permanent display at universities in Virginia: in McConnell Library at Radford University in Radford, Virginia; beneath the rotunda in Ruffner Hall at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia; at James Madison University; and at the University of Mary Washington.
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