Happy Birthday, Hiram Powers

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Today, we take a moment to commemorate the 205th birthday of American sculptor Hiram Powers. Born in Woodstock, Vermont, on June 29, 1805, Powers got his real start working as an artist in a wax museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was noticed for his representations of scenes from Dante's Inferno, and then moved to Washington, D.C. in 1834, where he created sculptures of prominent politicians. Then, in 1837, he made his way to Florence, Italy, and established his own studio.

Just six years later, in 1843, the neoclassical sculptor produced his most acclaimed work The Greek Slave, a full-length marble statue of a Greek Christian woman in chains. The sculpture traveled around as an exhibition throughout the United States and became both the first nude statue widely accepted by the American public and a figure used to symbolize the abolitionist cause. "It was a tour de force. People knew about it far more than any other piece," says George Gurney, deputy chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It had been shown at the Crystal Palace (for the Great Exhibition of 1851) in London and at the New York Crystal Palace in 1853, among other venues. And as a result Gurney says, "He was the first American sculptor to have international fame."

The Smithsonian is fortunate to have an extensive collection of Powers's work, including two versions of The Greek Slave, at its American Art Museum. "He represented the type of subjects—mythological, religious, political and literary—that appealed to people in the day," says Gurney.

Here is a highlights tour:

Clytie - In 1873, Powers carved a marble bust of Clytie, a water nymph from Greek mythology, that is now on display on the second floor, east wing of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). As myth has it, Clytie fell in love with Apollo and never took her eyes off of him. Even when she became a sunflower, she faced him, the sun. In Powers's sculpture, Clytie wears a sunflower in her hair.

Eve Disconsolate - SAAM also has two versions of Powers's famous Eve Disconsolate. One is a marble bust (right) on display on the second floor, east wing, and the other is a full-length plaster model in the Luce Foundation Center, the visible art storage and study center on the third and fourth floors of the museum. The sculpture is Hiram's attempt to convey Eve in the moment she gave in to temptation. Or as the artist once explained, the "expression of bewilderment, distress and remorse, which must have appeared on the face."

Thomas Jefferson - On display on SAAM's second floor, south wing is a full-length, plaster model of Thomas Jefferson. The marble version of the sculpture actually stands at the foot of the east staircase on the House side of the Capitol (opposite a Hiram Powers statue of Benjamin Franklin at the foot of the east staircase in the Senate wing). The likenesses of both Jefferson and Franklin were commissioned by President James Buchanan in 1859, and Powers was paid $10,000 for each. The statue of Franklin was installed in 1862 and Jefferson in 1863.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Late in his career, Powers focused on sculptures capturing ideals like "Hope" or "Charity" more than portrait busts, but he made an exception for the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The chiseled base of the bust (left) is styled after classical Greek herms.

Hiram Powers died, in Florence, two days before his 68th birthday. As was tradition at the time, friends and fellow sculptors Thomas Ball and Joel Tanner Hart molded a mask directly from Powers's face. The Death Mask of Hiram Powers can be found on the third floor of the Luce Foundation Center.

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