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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Hiram Powers (1805–1873)

Among the most influential and best-known American sculptors of the nineteenth century, Hiram Powers enjoyed international recognition for marbles executed in the prevailing Neoclassical style. Born in Woodstock, Vermont, he moved with his family to Cincinnati in 1818. After his father’s death later that year, he helped to support the family by taking on various jobs. Beginning in 1823, he worked at Luman Watson’s clock and organ factory and at the Western Museum, where he later mechanically animated wax figures for a tableau of Dante’s Inferno. In 1826, Powers began assisting Prussian émigré sculptor Frederick Eckstein, learning the rudiments of the sculptural process, including modeling in clay and producing plaster casts. With little formal training—just drawing classes at Eckstein’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1828—Powers completed portraits that revealed an innate artistic talent and attracted the attention of wealthy Cincinnatian Nicholas Longworth.

Armed with financing and letters of introduction to potential clients provided by Longworth, in 1834 Powers traveled to East Coast cities in search of portrait orders and a government commission. In Washington, D.C., he earned notice for his uncompromising bust of President Andrew Jackson (94.14), based on sittings in the White House in 1834–35. Hailed by a contemporary critic as “decidedly the best likeness [of Jackson] that has been taken,” the bust led to portraits of such prominent statesmen as John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and Daniel Webster.

Powers spent three years on the East Coast with periodic returns to Cincinnati. In fall 1837, with funds advanced by Colonel John S. Preston, he relocated to Florence, Italy. Although Powers intended to stay only a few years, he never returned to the United States and resided in Florence as a mainstay of the city’s thriving Anglo-American expatriate community until his death. His presence in Italy signaled it as the training and proving ground for a generation of American neoclassical sculptors in Florence and Rome—cities with cultural and economic resources favorable to artists and proximate to the quarries of Carrara and Seravezza. American and European clients gravitated to Powers’ studio, providing a steady stream of commissions for his portraits and ideal subjects.

Powers continued to model portrait busts throughout his career, a genre in which he excelled, completing some 150; George Washington (1982.443.2), his most popular, was translated to marble at least thirty-six times. In order to fulfill orders for East Coast commissions that had been executed in the preliminary materials of plaster and clay, he learned to carve marble in 1838, advised by the assistant of fellow Florentine expatriate sculptor Horatio Greenough. As Powers’ practice expanded and his popularity grew, he relied on a workshop of trained craftsmen to assist him in molding, casting, and carving his works. He invented time-saving tools and machines that streamlined the sculptural process for himself and his assistants. To complement his sculptures, he designed accompanying pedestals that were fabricated in his studio.

After his arrival in Florence, Powers began composing what was then considered to be a sculptor’s most worthwhile and creative endeavor: ideal works based on subjects from history, religion, philosophy, and mythology. The bust Ginevra (1837–38) was followed by the Roman goddess Proserpine (1839–73). The remarkable success of the latter, replicated in marble more than 150 times in three versions, inspired other idealized bust-length renderings of female subjects, including Psyche (1848), America (66.243), and Diana (1852). In 1839, Powers began his first lifesize ideal figure, Eve Tempted (1839–42), soon followed by his first and only full-length male nude, Fisher Boy (94.9.1), a popular subject in nineteenth-century sculpture.

Between 1841 and 1843, Powers undertook The Greek Slave, the work that became his most famous, guaranteeing him a global client base. The full-length female nude represents a bound prisoner being sold in a Turkish slave market, an allusion to the atrocities that the Turks committed during the Greek War of Independence, and, by implication, to the ongoing debate over slavery in the United States. The Greek Slave toured American cities from Boston to New Orleans between 1847 and 1849, and again into the 1850s, where it drew huge crowds and brought forth, alternatively, outpourings of protest and praise. Miner Kellogg, manager of the statue’s organized tour, assembled a descriptive pamphlet emphasizing the figure’s “high moral and intellectual beauty,” suggesting that—though nude—it was “clothed” in Christian piety. The Greek Slave was also shown in London in 1845 and 1848, and was a centerpiece of the United States display at the Great Exhibition in 1851 (1976.664[19]). In addition to six full-size carvings, The Greek Slave was reproduced at two-thirds scale and excerpted at bust-length. It also inspired a variety of lower-priced reproductions, from Parian porcelain statuettes (1983.492) to photographs (1982.1010.5), making The Greek Slave broadly accessible.

Powers’ success with The Greek Slave encouraged him to pursue other ideal themes that addressed current events. California (72.3) was inspired by the widely publicized Gold Rush beginning in 1848. He had hoped the model would persuade the newly admitted State of California to commission a colossal version for San Francisco, but his hopes remained unfulfilled. His last major work was The Last of the Tribes (1867–72), as Powers described it, an American Indian female “fleeing before civilization,” an allusion to Euro-American settlement and the forced relocation of Native peoples to government-established reservations.

Unlike fellow American Neoclassical sculptors such as Thomas Crawford and Randolph Rogers, Powers did not receive a significant United States government order until later in his career. In 1860, President James Buchanan awarded him a $20,000 commission for marble statues of Benjamin Franklin (1861–62) and Thomas Jefferson (1862–63) for the Senate and House wings of the U.S. Capitol. By the time of Powers’ death in 1873, the taste for Neoclassical marble sculpture was waning in favor of an ascendant realistic aesthetic carried out in bronze. However, business continued in his Florence studio until 1877 as assistants completed orders. In 1968, many of the studio contents were transferred to the National Collection of Fine Arts, now the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.