Hiram Powers (1805−73) was among the first American sculptors to establish an international reputation, rising to fame in the late 1840s with his Greek Slave, a life-size marble sculpture of a chained, nude woman. Few could have predicted Powers’ incredible success from his humble beginnings on a farm in Ohio or his time in Washington, DC, where he made somber plaster portraits of four early presidents and other luminaries. Powers moved to Florence, Italy, with his wife and young children in 1837, lured there by its abundance of fine marble and highly skilled stone carvers. He quickly realized there was much to gain from making ideal compositions of nude figures drawn from literary, biblical, and historical themes. Powers set up a studio dividing labor among several assistants and, using the latest technologies such as the pointing machine, to create numerous replicas of his most popular designs in marble. Although he always intended to return to the United States, Powers remained abroad until his death and became an unofficial ambassador for American culture. He was a central figure in the expatriate colony in Florence, where he masterfully marketed his work to British nobles and American collectors touring Europe.
Greek Slave became the most famous sculpture of the nineteenth century and propelled the artist, Hiram Powers (1805−73), to international stardom. The work was so provocatively lifelike that certain exhibition venues in the United States required that men and women view the sculpture separately. Powers justified the sculpture’s full nudity by claiming his work depicted historic events: a Greek woman, captured by Ottoman forces during the War of Independence, had been stripped and chained for sale at a slave market in Constantinople. American viewers in the 1840s and ’50s, many of whom had never before seen a sculpture of a nude woman, felt licensed to admire the Greek Slave because she was “clothed all over with sentiment.” Powers encouraged this interpretation of his work and indicated his subject’s modesty by turning the figure’s gaze demurely downward and including a cross and locket as symbols of Christian piety and faithfulness to a remembered loved one. The Greek Slave was almost immediately associated with slavery in the United States, where abolitionists used images of it to promote their cause. Powers produced six full-scale marble examples of the Greek Slave, each considered an original work of art. Much to Powers’ dismay, the sculpture became so popular that countless unauthorized imitations of Greek Slave were also made.
Hiram Powers’s Greek Slave was by far the most popular full-length statue the artist created. Between 1847 and 1849, more than a hundred thousand people saw the sculpture on its tour across America. The figure depicts a Greek woman who has been captured and chained by a Turkish warrior. The statue referred directly to the Greek struggle for independence during the 1820s, but also evoked the issue of slavery in America. Greek Slave was the first nude statue to be widely accepted by the American public. By emphasizing that the slave was stripped by her captors and not naked by choice, Powers gave the public permission to view the statue without fear of embarrassment. Greek Slave became so famous that Powers received numerous requests for replicas, including six full-size marble versions and more than a hundred busts of various sizes.
“She is too deeply concerned to be aware of her nakedness. It is not her person but her spirit that stands exposed.” Hiram Powers
- modeled 1843
- Not on view
- 26 1⁄4 x 18 x 10 3⁄4 in. (66.8 x 45.6 x 27.3 cm)
- Credit Line
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Museum purchase in memory of Ralph Cross Johnson
- Mediums Description
- plaster and metal pins
- Figure female – nude
- History – ancient – Greece
- Occupation – other – slave
- Study – sculpture model
- Figure female – waist length
- Object Number
- Linked Open Data
- Linked Open Data URI