Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (1827-1905) was one of the greatest French sculptors of the 19th century, sponsored by the French state and feted by illustrious patrons including Queen Victoria, Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie, Baron James de Rothschild, and the Marquess of Hertford. A pupil of François Rude, Cordier was ethnographic sculptor to the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris and established an international reputation for truthful and arresting portrayals of diverse ethnicities. Informed by the industrial and colonial age in which he lived, Cordier responded to this new mobility of humanity. He saw and sought out familiar strangers and studied early photographic portraits of African, Chinese and Arab visitors to Paris. Not satisfied with viewing from afar, he travelled to Algeria, Italy, Egypt and Greece, returning with sketches which he worked up into vibrant portraits and idealized statues rendered in precious marbles coupled with newly invented techniques of metal casting. Like 19th century anthropology, once criticized for attempting to divide the human species into typological categories, Cordier’s art has been reassessed as a celebration of humanity and praised for portraying, in an increasingly homogeneous world, peoples who were in the process of disappearing.
Following the success of his 1856 trip to Algeria, Cordier petitioned the Minister of Fine Arts, Frédéric de Mercey, to sponsor his expedition to Greece. He left for an eight-month voyage on 16 April 1858 aided with a letter of introduction from Count Walewshi, Minster of Foreign Affairs, with the objective to ‘execute reproductions of the human types of that country and to inspect the quarries of statuary marble’ (E. Papet & M. Vigli ‘The Trip to Greece, April to November 1858’; Margerie, op. cit., p. 5.). The love of Greek culture was rooted in the artistic intelligentsia of Paris, and Cordier was drawn to Greece by both its exoticism and the allure of the ancient world.
Cordier spent two months on the Greek island of Paros, ‘amidst these dry stones, sparing no fatigue by tropical sun’, investigating the quarries to secure for France a monopoly on the most beautiful marbles in the world. He shipped back a huge quantity of Parian marble to use for his ethnographic portraits of Greeks, especially for portraits of the peoples of Paros, and eventually realizing at least twenty-seven busts, medallions and full scale figures representing Greek figures.
The sculptor's bust of Poésie, first recorded in 1859, is modelled from a young woman of Paros and therefore also known by the title Jeune femme Pariote and (Margerie, op. cit., cat. 318 & 319, p. 181). In 1860 Cordier exhibited two busts in Paris, the first titled Jeune femme Pariote, described as wearing a Venetian costume carved like flamboyant silk raised with gold embroidery, and the second Jeune femme de Paros, a simple mountain girl, her race of natural elegance and the equal of the most cultivated of aristocratic beauties (M. Trapadoux, L’Oeuvre de M. Cordier, galerie anthropologique et ethnographique pour servir à l’histoire des races, Paris, 1860, No. 39 & 41, p. 181).
The present bust of Poésie, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1875, glorifies the humble young woman of Paros with a crown of laurels, strengthening the allusion to the Muses of Greek mythology. In accentuating the analogy, Cordier makes the viewer idealize the subject by illustrating the lineage between the simple mountain girl and the mythological goddesses of literature, science, and the arts. The innate nobility of the subject is emphasized by Cordier’s characteristic coupling of vibrant materials: the flawless white marble of the face and décolletage is enhanced by the gleaming onyx shoulders wrapped in a rose marble robe. The use of such luxurious vibrant colors is exactly what made Cordier’s sculpture so commercially successful, but led to criticism that it was overtly decorative: a rebellious rebuttal of the neoclassical tradition of pure white statuary. Cordier is however considered very much a fine rather than a purely decorative artist. His work is legitimized in part by the patronage of the French state, and although he can be criticized like most Salon artists of the day for a tendency towards the romantic, he is valued because, however diverse his subjects, his portrayals always maintain an appealingly and relatable, human quality.