Orientalism and a preoccupation with the exoticism of distant continents was not something which Cordier himself had pioneered. It was artists such as Delacroix who had for twenty years already found inspiration in the intense, vibrant colors, the rich majestic clothes and the curious, mystical lifestyle of the indigenous peoples of North Africa and Asia. It was Cordier, however, who gave three-dimensional life to this trend following the overwhelming success of his bust-length portraits, Saïd Abdallah and Vénus africaine at London's Great Exhibition in 1851. Fueled by a fascination with the juxtaposition of different materials and colours, Cordier began to experiment with 'galvinoplastie', a process of silver-plating which had been carried out successfully at the Paris silversmiths Christofle since 1842. The moderate success of the new technique confirmed Cordier's backlash to the monotony of the monochrome sculpture of the Romantic movement, and in 1856, funded by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he set off for Algeria to explore the multicolored marbles and onyx of its recently re-opened quarries, and observe its various peoples at first-hand. His extensive travels throughout North Africa and Greece resulted in no less than fifty sculptures, the present examples among them, executed using a combination of onyx, marbles, silvered- and gilt-bronze and enamels.
Perhaps considered to be the height of his artistic maturity, the 1860s ushered in an extra sense of opulence in his use of materials and a greater ambition in the scale of his works. As a result, lampadaires or porte-torchères, rather than busts, dominated the offerings at the Salons and International Exhibitions. Cordier's grand scale torchères, including his initial 1862 chef d'ouevre Torchère femme arabe, which was purchased by the Empress Eugénie for the Salon Galerie at Fontainebleau, essentially marked the culmination of his 'research into polychrome, both technically and esthetically.'(L. de Margerie & E. Papet, New York, 2004, p. 77). Like his contemporaries, Cordier turned out commercial works, including reductions, terracotta reproductions and unadorned versions of his popular models for a growing middle class. However it is his life-size torchères, tailored specifically for a well-to-do sect, that are considered a tour de force among his later works. These exquisite figures reiterate Léon Lagranges 1865 commentary in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts that Cordier's 'lavish sculpture requires lavish surroundings' (L. de Margerie & E. Papet, New York, 2004, p. 77). There is no doubt that the utmost level of drama resonates through the drapery folds and the enamelled jewelry exudes a centrain opulence to balance what de Margerie and Papet refer to as the 'perfect union of materials.'
The present figures, though not originally conceived as a pair, were executed between 1862 and 1865 along with other life-size torchère figures. Several examples have been offered and exhibited given a resurgent interest in the artist's oeuvre fueled primarily by New York's Dahesh Museum exhibition Facing the Other: Charles Cordier, Ethnographic Sculptor and its accompanying catalogue raisonné. Recent offerings include a matched pair of torchères, which was sold at Christie's New York, 24 April 2001, lot 309, comprising Cordier's earlier work Femme arabe and, as seen here, Femme Indienne portant un vase sur la tête. However, of the artist's torchère figures, the present lot features two of his lesser known and more scantily-clad models of Indian women supporting enamelled vases. De Margarie and Papet's catalogue raisonné, cites a plaster model for Femme Indienne portant une vase sur épaule gauche, now in a private collection in Cairo, which was supposedly completed in 1865, though no exhibition record is known for the model or subsequent casts. The catalogue raisonné further documents only two occasions upon which these particular models have been paired; the first being the present examples (cat. no. 565 and 566) and the second being a pair of bronze, onyx, marble and enamel versions (cat. no. 567 and 568), which were cast by Parisian fondeur Lerolle Frères and later exhibited in their stand at the 1878 Exposition universelle in Paris. Lerolle, considered an exemplary firm for the era, was fêted by critics for their luxury decorations by 'first-class artists, while modelling, moulding, chiselling and finish rank among the bronze-masters of Paris' (The Illustrated Catalogue of the Paris International Exhibition, 1878, p. 153).
Interestingly, some scholars speculate that the models for the present torchères together with Femme arabe later served as the base to the Cordier's Fontaine égyptienne, designed for the Garden Esbekieh in Cairo and exhibited in plaster at the 1869 Paris Salon. However, as the fountain was never executed beyond the exhibition model, very little can be confirmed from the surviving Salon photographs regarding the identity of the three figures referred to only as 'figures de Nubienne, d'Abyssienne et de Fellah.'