"A superb Sudanese appeared in the studio. Within a fortnight, I made this bust. With a comrade, I carried it into my room, by my bed […] I coveted the artwork […] I had it cast and sent it to the Salon […]. It was a revelation for the whole artistic world. […] My genre had the novelty of a new subject, the revolt against slavery, anthropology at its birth… "
In 1847, Charles Cordier's meeting (described in his Mémoires) with Seïd Enkess, a former black slave who had become a model, determined the course of his career. Exhibited at the 1848 Salon with the title Saïd Abdallah, of the Mayac tribe, Darfour kingdom, the bust did not pass unnoticed and, in 1851, Queen Victoria bought a bronze of it at the London International Exhibition. In 1855, in Paris, during the World Fair, the sculptor exhibited a couple of Chinese made of gilded, silvered and enamelled bronze, the first public demonstration of his interest in polychromy.
He got government grants for missions in Algeria (1856), Greece (1858), Egypt (1866, 1868) and he strove to "record the different human types that are on the verge of melting into a one and only people".
Sojourning a long time in Algiers and Cairo or travelling from island to island in the Cyclades archipelago, he brought back quantities of busts, medallions and statuettes from his trips.
These portraits constitute a remarkable aspect of Cordier's work. Numerous ethnographic busts, the Kabyle Child, the Black Moorish Woman, the Mulatto Woman, Priestess at the Bean Celebration… were clearly described by the artist as portraits of individuals met during his missions, some of them even being historical figures, such as the Hydriote Woman, retrospective representation of Lascaria Baboulina, heroine of the Greek independence, Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Maréchal Randon, governor of Algiers (1856) and the explorer Savorgnan de Brazza (1904)…
Cordier also turned to decorative research using the natural polychromy of marble varieties, in particular the onyx-marble of Algeria the quarries of which, exploited in Antiquity, had just been rediscovered. He also demonstrated a pronounced fondness for using different shades of patina on bronze (gilded, silvered or coloured) and sometimes used enamel. This aspect of his creation contrasts with the prevailing whiteness of the marble sculptures exhibited at the Salon, though he himself created such pieces regularly. Coloured, lively and sometimes luxurious, Cordier's sculpture, misunderstood by some of his contemporaries, testifies today to the variety of inspirations sought by Second Empire artists.
n addition, like most sculptors of his time, Cordier took part in the great works commissioned by the Second Empire (Opéra, the Louvre, the Hôtel de Ville) or by private interests (by the Baron de Rothchild at the Château de Ferrières). Author of monuments to Ibrahim Pasha in Cairo and to Christopher Columbus in Mexico, he counted among his admirers Napoleon III and the empress Eugénie, who acquired the Arab Woman, a candelabrum in onyx-marble and silvered bronze, for her Chinese museum at the Fontainebleau palace.
Algerian, Greek and Egyptian types; Cordier’s work on colour necessarily bring to mind the question of orientalism. If he belonged to the generation that included Fromentin and Bida and although he sought to render the exactitude of types, the sculptor's Orient was not the picturesque of a travelling artist or of a Parisian decorator. A sculptor’s "scientific" approach prevents such an assimilation. It was nevertheless difficult to escape from his century and from a cultural fascination for elsewhere.
Indeed, three times Cordier chose to live in Moorish decor: his studio Boulevard Saint-Michel in Paris (1864) and his villas in Orsay (1867) and Nice (1870), both now destroyed. Leaving Paris at the end of the Second Empire, Cordier settled first in Nice and, from 1890 onwards, in Algiers, where he stayed until the end of his days.
The exhibition, the first devoted to Cordier, unfolds around six sections. The beginnings of the sculptor and the abolition of slavery are evoked with two first ethnographic busts, Saïd Abdallah and the African Venus, offered by Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1851, and by an emblematic piece, Love One Another (1867), celebrating friendship between peoples. Charles Cordier's anthropologic work presents the complete series of his busts of the anthropology laboratory of the Musée de l'Homme, together with other busts and statuettes made after inhabitants of Algeria, Greece, Italy and Egypt.
A choice of ethnographic photographs and daguerreotypes by the photographers Louis Rousseau, Jacques-Philippe Potteau and Henri Jacquart, exactly contemporary with Cordier's work and from the collections of the photographic library of the Musée de l'Homme, establishes a parallel between sculpture and photography, both used as tools at the service of nascent ethnology.
Cordier's official career is illustrated by sketches and reductions of monumental sculptures and commissioned portraits. A section is devoted to publication and technique, such as offering a variety of forms in different materials and dimensions, with the example of the Chinois, , but also examples of silvered patinas, the publication of masks intended for artists and art schools and finally the techniques of assembling different kinds of marble, around the Negro from the Sudan of the Château de Compiègne and the gammagraphy of the copy of the Musée d'Orsay made in September 2003.
The Negro from the Sudan, the Negress of the Colonies, the Arab from El Aghouat, the Algiers Jewish Woman, the Poetry, the Greek Woman,medaillion of the Musée de Cambrai and the candelabrum Arab Woman, acquired in 1863 by the empress Eugénie, exceptional loan from the Château de Fontainebleau, close the exhibition: this triumph of polychromy testifies to the splendid singularity of Cordier's talent and his place as major figure of French sculpture under the second Empire who promoted, through his art, respect for the other.