Charles Cordier

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Charles Cordier.
Charles Cordier.
Charles Cordier.
Charles Cordier.

Sculptor Charles Cordier (1827-1905) captured attention worldwide when he exhibited a bust of a Sudanese man at the Paris Salon in 1848, the very year slavery was abolished in the French colonies. From 1851 to 1866 he served as the official sculptor of Paris's National History Museum, creating a series of spectacularly lifelike busts for their new ethnographic gallery (now housed in the Musee de l'Homme, Paris).

Facing the Other: Charles Cordier (1827-1905), Ethnographic Sculptor

"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.

In 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.

He Was Fascinated by People Who Were Not Like Him

By Ken Johnson

Dec. 24, 2004

Europeans in the 19th century were fascinated by the Other. Viewing Africans, Native Americans and Asians, dressed in their traditional costumes, was a hugely popular form of "educational" entertainment. This interest in other races and cultures also animated European art of the period. Ingres and Delacroix, the fathers of 19th-century French painting, were both devout Orientalists. And so was the French sculptor Charles Cordier, whose portraits of Southern European, Middle Eastern and African subjects can be seen now in an exhibition at the Dahesh Museum of Art.

A skilled academician, Cordier (1827 -1905) busied himself with the usual assortment of commissioned portraits, monuments and decorative works, which were the bread and butter of working sculptors. But he devoted his most passionate efforts to two different but interestingly related projects: the quasi-scientific portrayal of people from foreign lands and, contrary to the aesthetic orthodoxy of his day, the production of polychromed sculpture in which he used different kinds of materials and surface treatments to achieve richly varied textures and colors.

"Facing the Other: Charles Cordier, Ethnographic Sculptor," organized by the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and now at the Dahesh, includes about 60 sculptures. Among them is a selection of straightforward marble or bronze representations of people identified not by name but by ethnicity: "Kabyle Child," "Young Abyssinian Woman," "Young Fellah Woman in Harem Dress," "Maltese Coral Fisherman" and so on.

These sculptures look so artistically conventional today that it is hard to imagine seeing them as scientifically valuable studies of racial and ethnic types. But in the 19th century, categorizing human beings by race seemed an urgently worthwhile thing to do, and artists as trained observers and recorders of human anatomy were thought to be useful contributors to that project. Cordier's efforts earned him a position producing busts for the Ethnographic Gallery of the National History Museum in Paris from 1851 to 1866.

The show focuses mainly on Cordier's technically showy polychrome portraits. They include "Negro of the Sudan," who has a sensitively realized head of dark, silver-plated bronze, while his finely detailed garments and massive turban are carved from yellowish onyx marble. "Chinese Man" has a shaved head and a long, braided pigtail; his skin is a lustrous, smoky gold color and his ornate costume is a mix of deep browns and golden highlights.

"Jewish Woman From Algiers" is a buxom young woman of cast bronze emerging from a voluminous marble wrap, her red dress and headdress accented by bright red-and-blue enameling. And most impressive for its sumptuous materialism is "Arab Woman, Torchère," a life-size lamp stand in the form of a woman in a flowing dress of white marble whose head and arms are made of silver-plated bronze.

Like most of his compatriots, Cordier was a racist in the strictest sense of the word. He accepted the prevailing idea that racial categories were based on essential differences between different groups of people. Where he departed from mainstream 19th-century thinking was in his egalitarianism. When it came to beauty, at least, he did not believe that certain races were essentially superior to others.

The title of one of his most famous portraits, the bust of a young African woman, makes this point succinctly: it is called "African Venus," as though to say that every race has its own version of feminine beauty, and who is to say which trumps all others? So Cordier was a kind of early pluralist -- a proto-pluralist who rejected the Classical Greek ideal as the one and only standard of human perfection.

Cordier's use of multiple materials could also be seen as a kind of pluralism. It rejects the all-white marmoreal unity mistakenly assumed by modern academics to have been the Greek ideal. (In fact, archaeologists had already discovered that the Greeks and the Romans were avid polychromers.)

That there is another, more psychologically complex side to the story is hinted at by three modest portraits of French people.

One is an affectionate portrait of the sculptor's father, who tilts his head with what seems to be an intellectual's thoughtful expression. Two are women, and compared to the many foreign women who are practically bursting out of their bodices, the French women appear asexually prim.

It is hard to tell from just these few examples, but you may wonder if a broader comparison between Cordier's sculptures of people from his own society and people from other, southerly lands would show a clear division of labor between the higher mind and the lower body.

Cordier may have fancied himself a liberal, scientifically progressive humanist, and, by the standards of his time, it seems he was. The title of this exhibition gets him wrong, however. He was not "Facing the Other." He was not seeing other people on their own terms.

Rather, like countless Europeans infected by Orientalist fever, he was using the Other as a screen onto which he could project his own exotic fantasies -- fantasies that European bourgeois life discouraged people from living out at home.

Modernist artists like Gauguin and Rodin would express and act on their exotic fantasies and erotic desires far more directly than Cordier ever had the creative courage to do. What he produced was a fussily decorative, timidly academic mix of enlightened racism and extra-soft pornography. His work is not great, but it remains an illuminating sign of its times.

"Facing the Other: Charles Cordier, Ethnographic Sculptor" is at the Dahesh Museum of Art, 580 Madison Avenue, at 57th Street, (212)759-0606, through Jan. 13.


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Display of Turquoise Jewelry.
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