In 1847, Charles Cordier was struck by the beauty of an African model, a former slave, and made his portrait. He then decided to devote his career as a sculptor to representing the diversity of human physiognomy. He brought a large number of busts back from his trip to Algeria in 1856. This portrait was shown at the 1857 Salon as Negro from the Sudan. The Salon was an exhibition held first biennially then annually, where artists presented their latest works to the public.
It was one of Cordier's first polychrome works. The face is made of bronze and the mantle and turban of onyx marble from Algeria. The onyx quarries used in ancient times had just been rediscovered. Onyx marble characteristically ranges in colour from red to white, with stripes running through the blocks of stone. Cordier used these features to render the colourful effect of oriental fabrics. He also exploited the range of colours to be obtained from bronze. The metal surface of the Negro from the Sudan was initially silvered, then oxidised, which blackened it. Such use of colour was a novelty at the time when people were accustomed, as in the main gallery of the Musée d'Orsay, to seeing white marble or bronze sculptures.
Nothing is known of the model who posed for Cordier except that he played the tam-tam in the festivities of Alger's Muslim community before Ramadan. In an admiring, respectful manner, Cordier has managed to render his natural nobility, which prompted comparisons with a Roman emperor.