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.
When Powers began work on this sculpture, the United States government had already begun to force Native Americans off of their ancestral lands and onto reservations. Those Indians who agreed to treaties were driven into regions held by other tribes who fought to preserve their own territories. Powers wrote that he intended this work to represent
the last of them all… fleeing before civilization [and] looking back in terror.” But there is little terror in this figure’s expression or pose, which Powers based on classical sculpture. Like James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans
, this work seems to express a Euro-American fantasy in which the country’s original inhabitants would quietly and poetically disappear.
Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006