In a biography of Joseph Chinard read to the Academy of Lyon a year after his death, a local historian reported that the sculptor's first attempts at art were confections made for the local bakers and candymakers in Lyons. Whether this legend is true or not, it speaks to the qualities of intimacy, delicacy, and refinement for which Chinard's work was so admired. He received his first formal training at a free, government-supported art school in Lyon and later studied in a workshop. From 1784 to 1787 he worked in Rome, sending back to Lyon copies of antique works to fulfill commissions from the local bourgeoisie and nobility. During this period, he won the first prize in sculpture from the Accademia di San Luca, a rare accomplishment for a foreigner.
Despite several run-ins with Italian Church authorities for seemingly inappropriate and subversive French Revolutionary imagery in his sculptures, Chinard continued to travel back and forth between Lyon and Italy. Although one of the most popular French Empire sculptors and one of the favorite sculptors of Emperor Napoleon's family, Chinard made only three trips to Paris. He preferred living a provincial life; nevertheless, his patrons appreciated the sophisticated elegance and charm he gave to his Neoclassical portrait busts.