In 1848, whilst still training in the studio of François Rude, Charles Cordier attracted much attention when he exhibited a bust entitled Saïd Abdallah de la tribu du Darfour at the Salon. His choice of subject was based on a combination of childhood fantaisies of voyages to far-away places and the socio-political, cultural and artistic climate of the time. France, having recently conquered Algeria, had launched herself into a period of colonization.
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 colours, 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 through his sculpture. In 1851, at the Great Exhibition in London, Cordier exhibited alongside Saïd Abdallah his female pendant, which became known as the Vénus africaine. The pair were bought by Queen Victoria, confirming that interest in this type of subject-matter was not exclusively French. In 1853, Constant Duméril, the uncle of Cordier's wife, Félicie, became director of the Musée d'histoire naturelle, Paris, where an ethnographic gallery had been established in 1850. As a result, Cordier was commissioned to execute a number of works which both stimulated his own interest and corroborated current scientific theories concerning race.
It was at this stage that Cordier, fascinated by the juxtaposition of different materials and colours, began to experiment with 'galvinoplastie', a process of silver-plating which had been carried out successfully at the Paris silversmiths Christofle since 1842. Cordier's earliest attempts at this technique took the form of a pair of busts entitled Epoux chinois, exhibited at the Salon of 1853. Once completed, the busts were sent to the sculptor's brother-in-law, Devers, who applied the enamel highlights. The only moderate success that this new use of polychromy brought him failed to persuade Cordier to return to what he perceived as 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 multicoloured marbles and onyx of its recently re-opened quarries, and observe its various peoples at first-hand. The results of this trip and subsequent government sponsored visits to North Africa and Greece were no less than fifty sculptures, predominantly busts, executed using a combination of onyx, marbles, silvered and gilt bronze and enamels and representing races from Africa, Asia and Europe.
In the 1860s, during the period of his artistic maturity, Cordier's ethnological interests of the previous decade were superceded by an extra sense of opulence in his use of materials and a greater ambition in the scale of his works. Consequently, at this time his sculpture at the Salons and International exhibitions tends more often to be large figures, lampadaires or porte-torchères, rather than just busts. In terms of Cordier's oeuvre, the present pair of figures were not originally conceived as a pair. Inspired by his trip to Tunisia the previous year and executed using a spectacular combination of marble, onyx, enamel, bronze and semi-precious stones, the original version of the Femme arabe (on the left of the illustration) was exhibited at the Salon in 1862. The sculpture was bought by the Empress Eugènie for the Salon Galerie at Fontainebleau, where it remains today (see Sotheby's London, 20 March 1992, lot 139, for another example). Again executed in marble, onyx and bronze, the Femme fellah was first exhibited at the Salon in 1870 (a plaster version of the work is in a private collection in Cairo, and another example in onyx, bronze and enamel was sold Sotheby's London, 26 November 1998, lot 118).