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The 19th-Century Slave Sculpture that Exposed Americans to Nudity in Art

Hiram Powers, "The Greek Slave - Daguerreotype" (1848-49), daguerreotype (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Hiram Powers, “The Greek Slave – Daguerreotype” (1848–49), daguerreotype (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The first nude sculpture of a woman widely seen by the American public depicted a slave, just decades before the Civil War. Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, explores the artistic processes behind one of the most popular, and controversial, 19th-century sculptures.

Hiram Powers, "Greek Slave" (1843), plaster (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Hiram Powers, “Greek Slave” (1843), plaster (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum) (click to enlarge)

“If you had access to private collections or went on a Grand Tour, you might have seen this kind of artwork, but not if you were an average American,” Karen Lemmey, curator of sculpture and organizer of the exhibition, told Hyperallergic. Hiram Powers replicated “The Greek Slave” (1840s) in marble several times due to its huge success, where on an American tour it inadvertently became an abolitionist icon.

“He’s referencing multiple eras of enslavement, and within a short time this piece becomes identified by abolitionists as having the potential to address slavery more broadly, global slavery, slavery in the United States,” Lemmey said. “Even in today’s day and age, human trafficking is still a crisis. Young women and children are at the crux of the crisis, and Powers is deeply concerned about the fact that she’s a young woman, she’s fragile. The sculpture takes on new meaning as time goes on.”

Measured Perfection does not include any completed work, instead it stages its one gallery like a 19th-century studio with sculpture fragments, plaster molds, tools, and casts, most of it from a 1968 acquisition by the museum from the Florence studio where the American sculptor worked for much of his career. These objects are joined by a 3D scan from the Digitization Program Office of the “Greek Slave” plaster cast. This recent scanning and X-ray imaging revealed some of the artist’s techniques, such as body casting, where molds from a real person may have been used in his design, something that in the later 19th century was disparaged as a bit of cheating. For the museum, the scan of the fragile plaster cast is an essential tool for conservation, for understanding a point system used to guide marble reproductions, and, according to Lemmey, raises the question of “where do the real and the ideal come together in Neoclassical sculpture, and how much of a real person is actually embodied within this work that idealizes beauty?”

Hiram Powers, Mold of a Child’s Hand (1840-50), plaster (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Hiram Powers, “Mold of a Child’s Hand” (1840-50), plaster (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)

From this scan, a 3D printed version will be made for the reopening of the Renwick Gallery this November, installed in a room purposefully designed for William Corcoran’s marble “Greek Slave” (recently on view at the National Gallery in American Masterworks from the Corcoran, 1815–1940). The long run of Measured Perfection through February of 2017 allows the museum to intensely explore Powers’ craft and the evolution of technology in sculpture. “It’s getting people to be in a museum, but to understand where objects were made,” Lemmey said. “When you come into a museum you expect to see everything finished; this is in a moment of making.”

Studio of Hiram Powers, Cast of the Forearm and Left Hand of "Greek Slave" (thumb and two missing fingers) (around 1843), plaster (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Studio of Hiram Powers, Cast of the Forearm and Left Hand of “Greek Slave” (thumb and two missing fingers) (around 1843), plaster (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum) (click to enlarge)

Powers, who had patrons in the South, avoided directly addressing American slavery, rather referring to the Greek War of Independence that took place earlier in the 19th century, and looking back to a history of enslavement through to ancient Greece.

“He’s not going out on a limb and directly accusing the American slavery institution as wrong, he’s talking about it in the abstract in the perspective of Greek independence, and complicating it with a Christian woman who is white,” Lemmey said. The scandalous nature of the work was part of what made it so widely known, so much so that Powers actually tried to patent the sculpture, although the Smithsonian couldn’t find confirmation with the US Patent Office of whether he succeeded or not.

After five editions, he made a second version following the Civil War. Only sculpted in full-scale marble once, it had a major contextual alteration, the 1869 result of which is on view at the Brooklyn Museum.

“In that example he changes the very Neoclassical linked chains into a straight bar manacle which very unequivocally associates it with the American slave industry,” Lemmey said. “The piece does evolve from being something about slavery in the abstract, to about American slavery.”

"Greek Slave" on view at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by Daderot, via Wikimedia)
“Greek Slave” on view at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by Daderot, via Wikimedia)

Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave continues through February 19, 2017, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F streets NW, Washington, DC). 

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