Cordier travelled to North Africa to study its various peoples. Blessed with a considerable talent for observation, he became an ethnographic sculptor. While his first anthropological busts—for example, the Chinese works—depicted men and women he had seen in Paris, Cordier later went to Algeria, Italy, Greece and Egypt in search of models. He also developed a type of oxidized silver-plating, likely involving electrolysis, to depict Africans’ dark skin, using that patina in both life-sized busts and reductions.
Cordier made the plaster version of Abyssinian Girl during a trip to Egypt in 1866. This ethnographic portrait is actually what is known as an “expressive head,” in which the artist’s concern is to convey an emotional state, in this instance, sadness. The tears adding an element of mystery and intense feeling, this bust of the Abyssinian Girl constitutes a psychological portrait more than an ethnographic one, in the strict sense of that term—the only one of its kind in the sculptor’s oeuvre.