Marie-Joseph Chénier was born in Constantinople (modern day Turkey) on 28 August, 1764, fourth son of Louis Chenier, French consul in the city and Elisabeth Santi-Lomaca. He died in Paris on 11 January, 1811. He began his career in the army as a sous-lieutenant in the regiment Lescure-Dragons in Niort, but he soon give this up to become a writer; one of his first works, a play entitled Azémire, proved a failure not only at the Théâtre-Français in Paris but also later at the court theatre in Fontainebleau. On 4 November, 1789, another of his plays, Charles IX et la Saint Barthélémy, was performed at the Théâtre-Français. This time he was to meet with extraordinary success, despite the troubled contemporary political circumstances.
Indeed, it was to fix Marie-Joseph in the public's imagination, and he became an overnight star with the populace. And Chénier for his part was to take the side of the people during the Revolution. His play, Henri VIII et Jean Carlos (performed in 1791) was hated by the Court and criticised as anti-religion. On 15 September, 1792, Joseph Marie went into politics, becoming an elected member of the Convention for the Seine-et-Oise, and before entering the house he nailed his Republican colours to the mast with a performance of his play Caïus Gracchus. He was to further underline his Jacobin political stance by voting for the death of the king during the latter's trial. Though briefly threatened by rumours that he had had a hand in his brother's execution during the Terreur (his brother stood on the less radical side of the Revolution), he contrived to escape the guillotine via his sensitive Epître sur la calomnie. Shortly before his brother's demise he had penned his patriotic masterpiece, Le Chant du Départ. Disgusted with the Incorruptible's severity, on 9 Thermidor Marie-Joseph voted the fall of Robespierre, and later during the Directory he was a member of the Cinq Cents, also playing a role in the creation of the Institut de France (which he entered on 19 Brumaire, An IV) – he had earlier been one of the promoters of the establishment of the Conservatoire national de musique.
As a prominent moderate (he had pursued Collot d'Hernois, Barrère and Billaud-Varenne after Roberspierre's execution), he became secretary and later president of the Cinq Cents, supporting the Directory during the 18 Fructidor coup d'état – he was later however to be less energetic during that of Brumaire. He joined the Tribunat on 4 Nivôse, An VIII. In this assembly he was particularly opposed to the creation of the Special Tribunals, which resulted in his being eliminated from the institution in the purge of the Tribunate in An X. This was not however to end his career under Napoleon. He was appointed as Inspecteur général d'Instruction publique (An XI (1803) – 1806), retiring in ideological opposition to the Empire in 1806, indirectly as a result of the publication of his Epître à Voltaire. His play, Cyrus, a crypto-praise of Napoleon, commissioned by the First Consul and performed after the coronation, was a failure. A prolific though inconsistent author, he died on 10 January, 1811, aged 46.