A woman who makes us stop and wonder

(Jesse Metcalf Fund Courtesy of The Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / July 19, 2011

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PROVIDENCE - What should we think of this sculpture?

It’s an ugly question: Obligations to think anything are exactly what we go to art to escape. Still, works like this have their knots, and it’s interesting to untangle them.

Cast in bronze and plated in silver, it’s a polychrome sculpture by a brilliant Frenchman named Charles Cordier. It was modeled after a French woman from Guadeloupe who had been enslaved as a child.

The sculpture’s title, “African Venus,’’ was not Cordier’s. He called it simply “Bust of an African Woman.’’ Rather, it was applied by Théophile Gautier, the art critic and all-around giant of French letters best known today for coining the slogan “art for art’s sake.’’

Cordier, who was born in Cambrai, north of Paris, in 1827, subscribed to something a bit different from art for art’s sake. While still a student, he had emerged as one of the earliest practitioners of ethnographic art.

Anthropology was a new field at the time. Under its influence, and inspired by French egalitarianism, Cordier wanted his art to bring back accurate news of a world beyond Europe.

He had already achieved acclaim at the 1848 Salon for a related bust of a Sudanese man, “Saïd Abdallah of the Darfour Tribe.’’

Of course, both that work and “African Venus,’’ completed three years later, were influenced by the Orientalist craze sparked by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and Eugène Delacroix’s trips to North Africa.

But Delacroix was a Romantic; he saw Africa through the prism of literature. In Cordier’s work, an unmistakable note of scientific objectivity has entered in.

The same year he created “African Venus,’’ Cordier was made ethnographic sculptor to the Natural History Museum in Paris, a post he held for 15 years. During that period, while traveling abroad, he conceived a project to sculpt a series of ethnic types.

His vision - and his ability to execute it in rich and culturally evocative materials (red and ochre marble from Greece, onyx from Algeria) - made him a favorite of colonists, from Napoleon III to Queen Victoria.

Today, we are rightly suspicious of the idea of a gallery of “ethnic types.’’ We are taught to be mindful, too, of what Lionel Trilling called “some paradox of our nature [that] leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.’’

And yet . . . could we just return for a moment to the comforting illusion of art for art’s sake?

This woman, after all, has presence. Cordier has caught her in a moment of transition. Her head tilts to one side, as if she were recoiling from something. And yet her expression conveys control and reserve - perhaps even a hint of contempt.

It’s this combination of guardedness and self-assurance, trepidation and superiority, that has made people apply terms like “noble’’ and “dignified’’ to her.

But those are big words, laden with condescension. I prefer “observed.’’ I prefer “respected.’’ I prefer - because isn’t it necessary? Isn’t it art’s special prerogative? - “imagined.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

AFRICAN VENUS At: Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art. 401-454-6500.