Blondin was born at St Omer, Pas-de-Calais, France. His real name was Jean-François Gravelet, and he was known also by the names Charles Blondin or Jean-François Blondin, or more simply “The Great Blondin”. When five years old he was sent to the École de Gymnase at Lyon and, after six months training as an acrobat, made his first public appearance as "The Little Wonder". His superior skill and grace as well as the originality of the settings of his acts, made him a popular favourite.
Blondin went to the USA in 1855. He especially owed his celebrity and fortune to his idea of crossing the gorge below Niagara Falls on a tightrope, 1100 feet (335 m) long, 160 feet (50 m) above the water. This he accomplished, first on 30 June 1859, a number of times, always with different theatric variations: blindfold, in a sack, trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying a man (his manager, Harry Colcord) on his back, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelette.
In 1861, Blondin first appeared in London, at the Crystal Palace, turning somersaults on stilts on a rope stretched across the central transept, 70 feet (20 m) from the ground. In 1862 he again gave a series of performances at the Crystal Palace, and elsewhere in England, and on the continent.
In 1861 he performed at the Royal Portobello Gardens, on South Circular Road, Portobello, Dublin, on a rope 50 feet above the ground. While he was performing the rope broke, which led to the scaffolding collapsing. He was not injured, but two workers who were on the scaffolding fell to their deaths. An investigation was held, and the broken rope (2 inches in diameter and 5 inches in circumference) examined. No blame was attributed at the time to either Blondin or his manager. However, the judge said that the rope manufacturer had a lot to answer for. The organiser of the event, a Mr. Kirby, said he would never have another one like it. A bench warrant for the arrest of Blondin and his manager was issued when they did not appear at a further trial (they were in America). However, the following year Blondin was back at the same venue in Dublin, this time performing 100 feet above the ground.
After a period of retirement Blondin reappeared in 1880, including starring in the 1893/4 season of the 'Jack and the Beanstalk' pantomime at the Crystal Palace organised by Oscar Barrett. His final performance being in Belfast in 1896. He died of diabetes in Ealing, London at the age of 72 and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. 
Two roads in Ealing are named in his honour: Blondin Avenue and Niagara Avenue.
A well-known play has been written inspired by Blondin's feat of going across the Niagara river with a man on his back. "Crossing Niagara" by Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegría ends with a plausible replication of the feat itself, but invents the character of the man—in this case a boy—who took the ride. The play had its premiére in Lima in 1969 and since then has been performed in about fifty countries, most recently in Spain (2006) and Venezuela (2008). In English translation the play premiéred in London at the National Theatre (circa 1975) and in New York at the Manhattan Theatre Club (circa 1982).