La Capresse des Colonies
Charles Henri Cordier
Signed and dated 1861 Cordier
Bronze with silver and golden gilding on a yellow marble base
Height: 16" (40 cm)
Conceived and cast circa 1861
Charles Cordier was born in Cambrai and was apprenticed as a boy to a jeweller. This experience fundamentally inspired the fine detailing of his later sculpture and the ornate use of varying patinas, enamel decoration and mixed media for which he is well known.
Cordier studied at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and then with the prominent sculptor François Rude. He exhibited for the first time at the Paris Salon in 1847 and soon became fascinated by the foreign races. This speciality combined perfectly with the French interest in their new colony Algeria and the fashionable Beau Ideal of the Second Empire. He thus gained the commission from the Paris Museum of Natural History to produce busts for a special ethnographic gallery, also travelling extensively on an ethnographic mission sponsored by the government, going to Algeria in 1856, Greece in 1858 and Egypt in 1866.
The first bust in his series of studies was entitled Said Abdallah de la Tribu du Dufour and dates to 1848. This date is relevant both in French history and in Cordier’s career, for on April 27 of that year the government passed the law abolishing slavery in France and its colonies. In his unpublished memoirs, Cordier links specifically this event to the development of his art, stating that "my art incorporated the reality of a whole new subject, the revolt against slavery and the birth of anthropology." International interest in Cordier’s sculpture has recently increased thanks to the retrospective exhibition organised by the Musée d’Orsay in 2004, Facing the Other: Charles Cordier, Ethnographic Scultpure.
C.Cordier, Capresse des Colonies, Musée d’Orsay
The present work, Capresse des Colonies dates to 1861. It was first exhibited at the Salon in Paris and was purchased for the residence of the French emperor, Napoleon III. The sculpture then became part of the Louvre collection before passing into the hands of the curators at the Musée d’Orsay. The original concept of the work mixed Algerian marbles with bronze-work to achieve the polychrome effect for which Cordier was renowned. Another version of the sculpture in marble and bronze is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, New York.
The present cast is a reduction of the Orsay and Metropolitan Museum versions. It was produced in Cordier’s atelier – another similar bronze is part of the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Massachussets.
C. Cordier, Capresse des Colonies, Wellesley Museum
Compared to the piece in this American institution, the present cast elegantly displays Cordier’s desire to emulate the polychromy of his larger models. The figure’s gilded hairpiece, undervest and jewellery contrast the silver tones of her turban, vest and skin. Moreover, the light chiselling on the figure’s skin enhances the vitality of the piece and, together with the linear hatching of the vest and turban, demonstrates the great technical achievements of Cordier’s casting in his atelier.