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Hiram Powers

 (1805 - 1873)
Hiram Powers was active/lived in District Of Columbia, Ohio, Vermont / Italy.  Hiram Powers is known for marble sculpture-neo classical figure.

Hiram Powers

    POW-ers    click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

A preeminent Neo-Classical* American sculptor of the nineteenth century, Hiram Powers was a carver in marble* of figures including many subjects from Greek mythology.  According to one source, his work, Prosperone, became "the most favored single piece among Powers' work, and it was copied more times than any other work ever produced by an American sculptor" (Christie's New York, 12/2/1988).  His sculpture, Greek Slave, was "the best known work of the mid century". (Samuels, 379)

Born on a poverty-stricken farm in Vermont, near Woodstock, in 1805, Powers had humble beginnings, being the eighth of nine children.  His family moved to Cincinnati where from the ages of 17 to 23, he held jobs in the Luman Watson clock and organ factory, and he studied with portrait sculptor Frederick Eckstein from whom he learned clay modeling and plaster casting.  He also took a job running the wax works department of Dorfeuille"s Western Museum, which included the execution of an animated mechanical depiction of Dante's Inferno, something he accomplished by placing "clockwork mechanisms in a group of old wax figures which were remodeled by Powers". (Falk, 2652)

In 1834, having gained the sponsorship of wealthy Cincinnati art patron Nicholas Longworth, Powers moved to Washington DC where a significant positive turning point in his career was the completion the next year of his sculpture of Andrew Jackson titled The Jackson and modeled directly from the President at the White House.  The work was highly realistic of the sixty-eight year old man with his "wrinkled, sagging skin" (Baigell, 286).  In turn, this success brought him additional prestigious commissions including John Marshall, John Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and John Quincy Adams.

By 1837, he was settled in Florence, Italy with his wife and two children, hoping to have greater access to marble and better trained Italian workmen.  Helpful to him in getting settled and also influential upon his style, was sculptor Horatio Greenough, whom he knew from Boston.  With money in his pocket from the DC commissions, Powers decided to focus on idealized subjects in addition to portrait busts for which he was prolific, completing 150 between 1842 and 1855.  However, at that time, skillful execution of idealized figures was regarded as the test of competency as a sculptor, "a true artist by the standards of the day." (Baigell, 286).  Assisting him with his carving was an Italian workman and eventually a dozen assistants for his designs.

He used nude female models, which resulted, among others, in Eve Before the Fall and The Greek Slave.  Railroad magnate James Robb of New Orleans had commissioned the piece in 1846, and upon its completion, immediate notoriety surrounded Powers because the subject was a nude woman with her hands in chains, and the struggle for independence from the Turks.  Powers composed a sentimental story to accompany the piece, and the American public grew to accept it, even though the subject was nudity, which many persons found shocking. However, the girl was perceived as an innocent Christian whose innocence was underscored by her nudity.  The Greek Slave had an extensive tour in America, making $23,000. for Powers as well as securing at that time "a reputation as the greatest of American sculptors." (Baigell 287).

Powers continued to work in Florence, Italy, reportedly holding forth among the many tourist visitors and his sculptor peers in an autocratic manner.  He rivaled unsuccessfully with Thomas Crawford in commissions for portraits of prominent political figures in Washington DC, although he did portraits for the House of Representatives of Benjamin Franklin in 1862, and Thomas Jefferson in 1863.  In 1872, he did his last full-length work, which was a half-nude, running Indian maiden titled The Last of the Tribe.

Powers died in Florence, Italy in 1873.  His son, Preston Powers, also a sculptor, supervised the Denver School of Fine Arts, which was operated at the University of Denver.

Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Christie's New York
Peggy and Harold Samuels, Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West
Peter Hastings Falk, Editor,Who Was Who in American Art
American Art Review

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary


Biography from the Archives of askART
Note submitted July 2005 from Mark Paluch:

Hiram Powers was a good friend of Minister Thomas Worcester of the Boston Swedenborgian church.  When Reverend Worcester visited Hiram in Florence, Italy in 1850, he baptized Hiran his wife and son Preston.  Hiram created a marble bust of Reverend Worcester, which the church still has in its private collection, and also worth noting is a white marble bust of Emanuel Swedenborg done by Preston.

Biography from Taylor Graham
Hiram Powers was born in Woodstock, Vermont and grew up in Cincinnati where he worked as a boy in the shop of a watchmaker.   Powers showed an inherent talent for mechanical work, and at an early age was made supervisor of Watson's watch making and organ shops.

He learned to model figures in wax, and modeled the hands and heads for 12 animated figures to be used on an automatic organ built by Watson, thus almost inadvertently beginning his career as a sculptor.  This display of talent immediately attracted the attention of Joseph Dorfeuille, owner of the Western Museum, an entrepreneur who needed someone with Hiram's talents to spice up the museum displays.  Powers was soon hired away by Dorfeuille, who commissioned him to do an animation of Dante Alighieri's Divina Commedia, with devils and imps and monsters uttering "unearthly sounds, horrid groans, and terrible shreaks (sic)".

One of Powers' delights after the show opened to the public was to dress as the Devil and slink along amongst the dimly lit figures of the display, inquiring in a sepulchral voice, "Do you think you smell sulphur?" The very popular show gained a bit of respectability through its policy of admitting clergymen without charge, and a lot of notoriety: several of these clergymen were later found at different times lurking in the dark corners of the display room.  These worthies, dressed in their black ministerial cloth, would creep out of their dusky hideaways during the show and attempt to lead the "ignorant and terrified" to the "safety" of the church.  One can imagine that the result was either instant salvation or instant heart stoppage.

Hiram later studied under Frederick Eckstein, the son of a very talented French sculptor who had emigrated to Cincinnati from Philadelphia.  Eckstein taught him to model in wax, clay, and plaster.  Hiram's older brother, Benjamin, who was the editor of the local newspaper, tutored him in reading and writing during these years—and made sure he updated his social skills as well.  Cincinnati, even then known as the "Queen City" and one of the largest inland ports, was quite a town, considering its relative youth—the area was settled in 1788, and the city was incorporated in 1819—and its relative isolation.

Among the people with whom Powers consorted were such luminaries as John James Audubon, the Marquis de Lafayette, General William Harrison (later the ninth president, of "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" fame), Nicholas Longworth (soon to be the second-richest man in the country), Mrs. Frances Trollope (before she wrote her acerbic discussion of American manners), and Harriet Beecher Stowe.  At the age of 27, Hiram felt he was making a good enough living to marry Elizabeth Gibson, the daughter of a boarding house keeper and a ne'er-do-well alcoholic father, which he did on the first of May, 1832.

About this time, Hiram met Robert Lytle, an Ohio congressman, who took him under his wing.  Another friend was the budding lawyer and perennial presidential candidate, Salmon Portland Chase, who, when he later became Secretary of the Treasury, saw to it that Powers was paid in gold for his commissions, rather than in the relatively worthless scrip usually used for government debts during the Civil War.

Powers did busts of Stonewall Jackson, John C. Calhoun, John Marshall, and Martin Van Buren, and traveled to Boston to model busts of Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Winthrop.  A patron named John Stevens Preston offered to finance a move to Europe, where Hiram could further his career as a sculptor.  Hiram returned to Cincinnati from Boston via New York and Woodstock, the last time he was to visit his birthplace, and collected his family for the move to Florence, Italy, where he was to live and work for the rest of his life.

Hiram Powers quickly became a prominent member of the small American colony in Florence, and his studio was soon a stopping point for the great and near-great of Europe, and wealthy and well-known Americans who were "doing the Continent." Many of his visitors sat for a bust.  Some of the great and near-great for whom he executed busts were: Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon's oldest brother), Mary Ray, an American who became the Comtesse de Courval (and guardian of Jeanne d'Arc's suit of armor), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, General Phillip Henry Sheridan, Cornelius Vanderbilt (rich, but a bit too nouveau for society), and Daniel Webster again.

Most of Powers' major United States government commissions came when he was in his fifties.  He cut two statues in marble—Benjamin Franklin and George Washington—for which he was extremely well paid, thanks to Secretary Chase. With this new-found wealth, he built his own villa in Florence, with a studio nearby. His wife found this villa somewhat more to her taste than their previously rented quarters, and well-suited to her rising social status.  She hobnobbed with the likes of the Nathaniel Hawthorne family (they lived just across the street), Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Russian royalty, and the aristocracy and the wealthy famous and near-famous of America, England, France, and Germany.  Her Thursday afternoon "at-homes" were popular and well attended—the daughter of a boarding-house keeper and a drunkard became the hostess of American expatriates in Florence.

After several years of gradually declining health, Hiram Powers died on June 27, 1873, of pneumonia, complicated by a silicosis brought on by breathing marble and plaster dust for almost fifty years.  After a nearly 40-year struggle to make a name for himself, at the end he was wealthy and famous, and his studio in Florence, Italy, was a "must stop" for travelers on the Continent.

A century and a quarter later, the works of Hiram Powers, Sculp., as he signed himself, are displayed around the world, from Italy to Australia to Puerto Rico.  Not too bad for a poor farm kid from Woodstock, Vermont—and a clockmaker's apprentice whose late-in-life comment to a benefactor was that "Some of my happiest days were spent in Watson's Clock Factory."

Honorary National Academician, 1837

The Greek Slave toured London and the United States, 1847
National Academy of Design, 1867
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1878

Boston Museum Fine Arts
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Cincinnati Art Museum
Metropolitan Museum of Art
National Museum of American Art
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
State House, Boston
Franklin and Jefferson are at the Capitol Building, Washington DC
Copies of the Greek Slave are at: Corcoran Gallery of Art,
Brooklyn Museum
Newark Museum
Yale University Art Gallery

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
In his spare time while working in a Cincinnati grocery store, the youthful Hiram Powers sculpted animals and monsters in butter.  In 1823-24, Powers studied clay modeling and plaster casting with the Prussian artist Frederick Eckstein in Cincinnati. One of his earliest efforts was repairing and mechanizing wax figures for the Western Museum in Cincinnati.  In 1834 a patron, Nicholas Longworth, provided funds to enable Powers to move to Washington, DC and then later to Europe.

In London in 1845, Powers established his international reputation with The Greek Slave, and he soon was incontestably the most famous sculptor America had yet. (1)  Up to this time, America's puritanical sensibilities disapproved of nude figures.  The Greek Slave endured because it was thought to be the first truly moral one depicted. The slave had been captured and divested of her garments by enemies.  Her unwilling nakedness was the purest form of the Ideal.  The artist, a confirmed Swedenborgian, felt that the nude statue should be an unveiled soul. (2)  It opened the door, so to speak, for the acceptance of the virginal nudes that became quite popular in the paintings and statues of the Gilded Age. 

Before moving to Paris in 1836, Powers was well known in Washington, DC for his portrait busts.  His commissions included political dignitaries such as Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams.  These vanity pieces quickly were over shadowed by his overwhelming success of his statuary that he created once he left America.

By 1837, Powers had settled permanently with his family in Florence, where there was an abundance of marble for his carving and cheap labor to assist him.  In Florence, following in the neo-classical tradition, artists were free to model nudes without suffering the social criticism prevalent in America.

Powers died in Florence in 1873.  Today he is widely considered the dean of America's neo-classical sculptors of the nineteenth century.

Sources include:
1. Robert Hughes, American Visions (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 217-218.; also, see Eric W. Baumgartner, Hiram Powers (New York: 1996) and Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America (New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968).

2. William Kloss, Treasures from the National Museum of American Art (Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, 1985), 190.  Emanuel Swedenborg was a theologian who established a church and espoused a tenet that the form of man is the human form.  Power's teacher, Eckstein, was also a Swedenborg convert, and it was in Cincinnati that Powers first encountered the New Church of Swedenborg.

Submitted by the staff, Columbus Museum

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About  Hiram Powers

Born:  1805 - Woodstock, Vermont
Died:   1873 - Florence, Italy
Known for:  marble sculpture-neo classical figure