Françcois Pompon was born in 1855 at Saulieu in France. His father was a craftsman-joiner and ebonist, and Pompon was apprenticed first to him, then to a stone-cutter and monumental mason. The sense of craft and tradition was never to leave him, and was to inform his work, allying him to the French carvers of cathedral facades and roadside shrines as much as to the lineage of the Beaux Arts and the atelier system.
Nevertheless he pursued sculpture as a fine art in his free time, winning prizes locally and moving to Paris in 1875 to attend the Ecole nationale. There again he won prizes and acclaim. He showed in the Salon for the first time in 1879 and his career gathered momentum. However his style was advanced for its time, and a State commission was refused in 1899. He soon after went to work for Rodin and was to assist other sculptors such as Camille Claudel and Tourgueneff.
More exhibitions followed, but state commissions continued to elude him, and it became clear that he was among that generation who would shift the whole pattern of the sculpture career away from official patronage and into the modern age of the art market. In the early years of the twentieth century Pompon began to sell casting rights for his sculptures to Adrien A. Hébrard, the legendary founder and dealer of sculpture , who dealt with Rodin, Degas, Bugatti and many other artists. Pompon also began to specialise in animal sculpture, like Bugatti, working open-air from beasts in the Jardins des Plantes and every summer at farms around the town of Cuy. He showed regularly at the Salons, but suffered continuing financial hardship exacerbated by World War One and by the illness of his wife whom he had married in 1882.
Pompon’s circumstances improved after the War, with the support of Hebrard who gave his a solo show in 1919, and important collectors such a Jacques Zubaloff acquiring his work. Critical acclaim grew, and by the mid 1920s he was recognised as part of a new generation of french sculpture (including Maillol, Poupelet, Despiau, Brancusi, Orloff, Archipenko and Pompon’s close friend Bernard) that had emerged from the shadow of Rodin to affirm a new creed of simplicity, dignity and distilled form.
The Polar Bear, begun in 1920 and reworked in different forms for almost fifteen years, cemented the artist’s reputation, becoming a classic of modern sculpture. A series of other signature pieces - panthers, doves, stags, bison and many others - issued from is hand, representating an extraordinary triumph over early adversity, and an increasing burgeoning of talent. Pompon resumed his study of domestic and farm animals also, and in 1931 he was instrumental in setting up ‘Les Douze’, an association of ‘animaliers’.
Other important memebers were Jouve, Poupelet, Guyot and Saint-Marceaux.
International exhibitions, commissions and awards now followed, and despite failing health Pompon worked with increasing energy up to his death in 1933. His Condor surmounts his tomb column in Saulieu. His works are in museums worldwide, a museum devoted to him and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris has a significant holding of his plasters, terra-cottas and bronzes.