PROPERTY OF THE FAMILY OF CHARLES-HENRI-JOSEPH CORDIER
Interest in the different peoples of the globe preoccupied French society in the 19th-century. The fields of anthropology and ethnology became increasingly high profile. Exhibitions which showcased living people from other regions of the world drew huge crowds. Disturbingly, numerous theorists published writings espousing the superiority of white Europeans over blacks. Cordier, however, displayed a palpable sympathy for people of other races in his ethnographic busts. Chiefly concerned with the search for beauty in every peoples, he wrote in 1865 before his trip to Egypt, ‘I wish to present the race just as it is, in its own beauty, absolutely true to life, with its passions, its fatalism, in its quiet pride and conceit, in its fallen grandeur, but the principles of which have remained since antiquity’ (as quoted by Margerie, op. cit., p. 28). Few contemporary commentators, with the exception of writers such as Victor Hugo, the Abbé Grégoire, and Madame de Staël, offered such enlightened views. In his official role at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Cordier embarked on a number of government sponsored missions to different parts of the world in order to record a series of modern racial types in sculpture, the ideal beauty of each peoples. He travelled to Algeria in 1856, where he modelled his famous Mauresque d’Alger chantant (Moorish Woman of Algiers Singing) and, as mentioned above, to Egypt in 1866, where he conceived his celebrated Cheik Arabe du Caire (Arab Sheik of Cairo). However, it was in 1858 that Cordier travelled to Greece, stopping for a number of months in Rome, where he created the present masterful ethnographic study.
In Rome, Cordier was confronted with the world of the ancients, the Eternal City, which had inspired countless generations of French artists. Writing to Frédéric Bourgeois de Mercey from Rome in June 1858, he exclaimed ‘the great masters have inflamed my desire to work’ (AN, Paris, F21 72). Cordier created three important sculptures whilst in Rome: the present bust, his La belle Gallinara, Jeune fille des environs de Rome (The Beautiful Gallinara, Young Girl from around Rome), and his Romaine du Trastévère, 25 ans (A Young Woman of Trastevere). The latter, believed lost when the catalogue for the 2004 Cordier exhibition was published, was subsequently rediscovered and sold in these rooms on 23 November 2010, lot 1. A monumental bust, with virtuoso carved pearls suspended from the girl’s neck, this marble provides a sense of the pride and grandeur of Rome. In contrast to Cordier’s two other Roman works, the Gallinara, of which the locations of both the plaster and the marble are unknown, was conceived as a life-size statue. Interestingly, Cordier used the same model for both this statue and the present bust, and there are obvious stylistic and compositional correspondences between the two, most notably the distinctive hat.
Cordier’s decision to represent a girl from the lands surrounding Rome, the Campagna, is significant. The most revered French artist to have trained and worked in Rome, Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), made the Campagna the focus of his artistic endeavours, idealizing its flat, low-lying, landscape with temples, pastoral figures and placid grazing animals. Claude’s attempts to conjour up a lost antique past (the 17th-century Campagna was, in fact, a barren, over-farmed, hostile environment, plagued by banditti), inspired generations of French artists, and proved particularly popular with visiting English Grand Tourists, who sought to emulate the landscapes he painted in their own country estates. Cordier’s choice of a model from Rome’s hinterlands might thus be seen as an homage to Claude and to earlier traditions in French art.
The present marble appears to have been the only one of Cordier’s Roman sculptures to have been polychromed, adding a sense of exoticism and vitality to this charming image. Cordier had been interested in the notion of the colour of sculpture since early in his career. Inspired by his namesake, the 17th-century French sculptor active in Rome, Nicolas Cordier (1567-1612), he combined bronze with sumptuous marbles found on his travels, such as in his remarkable oxidized silver-plated bronze and onyx-marble Nègre du Soudan (Negro of the Sudan) in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris. Later in his career he would create magnificent enamelled, silvered and gilt bronzes, combined with exotic marbles. These dazzling sculptures created a sensation, being praised by some critics for their novelty and genuius, whilst being damned by others as industrial decoration.
The present bust, in being subtly tinted, references a more deliberately classicizing approach to polychromed sculpture. The golden tint to the girl’s hair and the light rouge applied to her corset are closely reminiscent of John Gibson’s celebrated neoclassical Tinted Venus of 1851-56, which had been exhibited in Rome in 1854. Gibson’s Tinted Venus was undoubtedly influenced by the fashionable contemporary theory that the Ancients merely tinted small parts of their statuary, such as the lips and hair. Cordier likewise appears to have followed this theory, opting to portray his modern Roman Venus in a manner similar to that of his ancient predecessors. It is seems possible that he may even have been influenced by Gibson’s model.
The present marble is beautifully carved. Observe the superb floral patterns adorning the girl’s belt, the soft, crushed, folds of her chemise, and the smooth, polished, skin of her flesh. The combination of such excellence in the quality of carving, together with the delicate hints of colour, serve to create one of Cordier’s most subtle and charming ethnographic busts.
A. Blühm, The Colour of Sculpture 1840-1919, exh. cat. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 1996, pp. 170-173, nos. 47-49; L. de Margerie, '"The most beautiful Negro is not the one who looks most like us' - Cordier, 1862', L. de Margerie and É. Papet (eds.), Charles Cordier (1827-1905), sculpteur, l'autre et l'ailleurs [Facing the Other. Charles Cordier (1827-1905)], exh. cat. Musée d'Orsay, Paris; Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Quebec City; Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, 2004, pp. 13-49; R. Panzanelli, E. Schmidt and K. Lapatin, The Color of Life. Polychromy in Sculpture From Antiquity to the Present, exh. cat. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008, pp. 160-165, no. 31-33
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