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Hiram Powers

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Hiram Powers
Marble sculpture-neo classical figure
American, (1805–1873)
Among the most influential and best-known American sculptors of the 19th 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 emigre sculptor Frederick Eckstein, learning the rudiments of the sculptural process, including modeling in clay and producing plaster casts. With little formal training, Powers completed portraits that revealed an innate artistic talent and attracted the attention of wealthy Cincinnatian, Nicholas Longworth.

In 1834, armed with financing and letters of introduction to potential clients provided by Longworth, Powers travelled 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, based on sittings in the White House in 1834 - 1835. 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. American and European clients gravitated to Powers' studio, providing a steady stream of commissions for his portraits and ideal subjects.

Powers continued to model portraits busts throughout his career, a genre in which he excelled, completing some 150 pieces; George Washington 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 assistance 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, philosphy, and mythology. The bust Ginevra (1837 - 1838) was followed by Proserpine (1843 - 1849). The remarkable success of the latter, replicated in marble more than 150 times in three versions, imspired other idealized bust-length renderings of femal subjects, including Psyche (1848), America (1850-1854), and Diana (1852). America is presented as a youthful maiden wearing a diadem with thirteen stars, representing the original colonies. It became one of Powers' most profitable works; it was reproduced at least twenty-eight times. In 1839, Powers began his first life-sized ideal figure, Eve Tempted (1839-1842), soon followed by his first and only full-length male nude, Fisher Boy, a popular subject in 19th century sculpture.

Between 1841 and 1843, Powers undertook The Greek Slave, the work that became his most famous, guaranteeing him 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. Minor 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 Christitan 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. 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 in ivory, metal, porcelain, and clay making The Greek Slave broadly accessible.

Powers' success with The Greek Slave encouraged him to pursue other ideal themes that addressed current events. California 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 reamined unfulfilled. His last major work was The Last of the Tribes (1867-1872), 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, which had begun at the time of its sculpting.

Powers did not recieve a significant United States government order until later in his career when, in 1860, President James Buchanan awarded him a $20,000 commission for marble statues of Benjamin Franklin (1861-1862) and Thomas Jefferson (1862-1863) for the Senate and House wings of the U.S. Capitol.

A consummate business man as well as artist, Hiram Powers was wealthy and famous by the end of his years. His studio was considered a "must see" stop for travelers to Florence. After several years of gradually declining health, Hiram Powers died on June 27, 1873, of pneumonia, complicated by a silicosis brought on by beathing marble and plaster dust for almost fifty years. However, business continued in his Florence studio until 1877 as assistants completed orders. In 1968, many of the studio contents were transferred to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington D.C.

His works are held by museums around the country, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Cincinnati Art Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and the Brooklyn Museum.

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