Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (1827-1905) is he most celebrated ethnographic sculptor of the 19th century. The French artistic interest in the exotic and oriental races was first explored by painters and authors, but was translated into a sophisticated balance of the scientific and the poetic by Cordier. He was fascinated by ethnographic accuracy and the nobility and elegance of foreign races, and, as such, was commissioned by the Paris Museum of Natural History to produce busts for an ethnographic gallery.
Cordier's describes in his memoirs how his meeting with Seïd Enkess, a former black slave who had become a model, determined the course of his career:
"A superb Sudanese appeared in the studio. Within a fortnight, I made this bust. With a comrade, I carried it into my room, by my bed […] I coveted the artwork […] I had it cast and sent it to the Salon […]. It was a revelation for the whole artistic world. […] My genre had the novelty of a new subject, the revolt against slavery, anthropology at its birth… "
The resulting bust of Seïd Enkess, titled Said Abdallah de la tribu du Darfour, was shown at the Paris Salon in 1848. Three years later Cordier modelled a woman from the African coast, the result being the celebrated present work, Vénus africaine, as it was christened by the art critic Théophile Gautier. The pair of busts were then shown together and were purchased by Queen Victoria on their inclusion in the 1851 Great Exhibition in London (now at Osborne House).
As one of the earliest promoters of polychromy, Cordier was able to create a vivid image of the exotic, while simultaneously imbuing his subjects with a classical beauty, the very idealism which led Gautier to the exulted title of the present work. In combining his themes, inspired by the progress of science, with the sensitive, masterful handling of his chosen materials, Cordier achieved a highly decorative, exotic art form whose contribution to the Orientalist movement of the nineteenth century has proved of lasting fascination.