La Capresse des Colonies

Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (French, 1827–1905)

Pedestal attributed to designs by Charles-François Rossigneux (French, 1818–afer 1909)
French, Paris
Algerian onyx-marble, bronze and gilt bronze, and enamel; white marble socle
Overall on socle (confirmed): H. 37 3/4 x W. 23 1/4 x D. 12 1/4 in., 208.4lb. (95.9 x 59.1 x 31.1 cm, 94.5296kg) [Weight breakdown: head 35.4 lbs, marble bust 173 lbs, marble socle 98.7 lbs] Pedestal (confirmed): H. 41 3/8 x W. 18 1/4 x D. 18 1/4 x 11 3/4 in. (105.1 x 46.4 x 46.4 x 29.8 cm)
Credit Line:
European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Fund, 2006
Accession Number:
  • Description

    In his unpublished memoirs Charles Cordier cites the law of April 27, 1848 that abolished slavery in France and its colonies, writing: "My art incorporated the reality of a whole new subject, the revolt against slavery and the birth of anthropology." In pioneering ethnography as a subject for sculpture in the nineteenth century, Cordier aimed to illustrate what he described as "the idea of the universality of beauty." His busts often paired couples of the opposite sex but of the same race. This rare instance of matched busts of women was desired by the purchaser, a gaming club in Marseilles, that also commissioned the sumptuous Second-Empire pedestals from Cordier.

    The busts revel in the period taste for polychromy in sculpture, an international phenomenon sparked by artistic debates about the painting of ancient statuary and inspired by ancient Roman and Renaissance sculpture composed of variously colored marbles. On a trip to Algeria in 1856 Cordier discovered onyx deposits in recently reopened ancient quarries and began to use the stone in busts such as these. He ingeniously fitted enameled bronze heads into the vibrantly patterned stone, creating exciting though costly representations of Africans that appealed to the highest levels of European society.

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Signature: Signed and dated (cast in the bronze arm bracelet): Cordier/1861

  • Provenance

    Cercle des Phocéens, Marseilles, France (1862/63–1975) ; Private Collection, Marseilles, France (1975–2005)

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History