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Hiram S. Powers, The Greek Slave

Hiram Powers' "The Greek Slave" sculpture, made in 1866, is a symbol of purity, modesty, and victimhood. The sculpture, depicting a Greek Christian woman sold at a slave market, sparked controversy in Victorian America. Its wide distribution and popularity highlighted the issue of slavery, making it a significant piece in American art history.

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Video transcript

(mellow piano music) - [Beth] We're in the Brooklyn Museum, looking at what's probably the most famous American sculpture of the 19th century, this is Hiram Powers, "The Greek Slave" from 1843, but the version we're looking at is a later version from 1866. This is such an interesting sculpture for so many reasons, first of all because it's a full length nude and yet Americans had trouble with the female nude in art if we look back for example to Vanderlyn's painting of Ariadne. - [Margarita] The nudity of the figure was particularly scandalous in the context of Victorian America. Hiram Powers initially conceived of this sculpture in response to the events of the Greek War of Independence and what we see is a Greek Christian woman being sold at a slave market in Constantinople, but in the material that accompanied the exhibition of "The Greek Slave" Powers constructed this narrative. The slave has been taken from one of the Greek islands by the Turks in the time of the Greek Revolution. Her father and mother and perhaps all her kindred have been destroyed by her foes. She is now among barbarian strangers and she stands exposed to the gaze of the people she abhors and awaits her fate with intense anxiety, tempered by the support of her reliance upon the goodness of God. Here, they've included a reference to her Christianity as well as the locket, the reference to the family from which she's been plucked. - [Beth] So you have this whole, erotic current that's running through this sculpture, but a current that is systematically being denied at the same time. There's the stress on her modesty, on her Christianity, on her victomhood. - [Margarita] And here we might also connote just from the whiteness of the marble, a reference to her purity and whiteness as opposed to that of the Ottoman Turks. Powers was looking to ancient sculpture for source material and certainly he was looking at examples of Venus. From those sculptures he was able to borrow particular material, such as the averted gaze of the figure, who looks off to her left, we see her in profile, and he also borrowed this pose where the woman is shielding her nude body from these onlookers. - [Beth] And people loved it. The sculptures toured both the United States and in England, miniature copies were made in porcelain, the figure appeared on tin boxes, on all sorts of items from popular culture. There was a way in which this sculpture really drew people into the story. This poor, Christian woman, a martyr, who's being put through this terrible ordeal. - [Margarita] And that kind of moral piety is something that really pervades the entire sculpture. - [Beth] Especially when we think that her captors, and those bidding on her were Muslims. Powers is sculpting this at the very moment, when slavery is such an important issue in American politics. Clearly, it was difficult to look at this sculpture and not think about trans-Atlantic slavery. - [Margarita] When the sculpture was originally conceived, Powers had different ideas about the issue of slavery by the early 1850's he became an ardent abolitionist, he believed very strongly in the emancipation and freedom of enslaved peoples in the United States, and many viewers associated this figure with the experience of enslaved individuals. - [Beth] In this last version, there is one significant change and that is instead of chains, we now have manacles. So an even more direct reference to slavery. - [Margarita] We know that when he communicated with his patron, that he spoke about this substitution as being more to the purpose. - [Beth] Between 1843 when he made the first version, and 1866 when he made this last marble version we had The Civil War, we had the Emancipation Proclamation, we had the Fugitive Slave Act. - [Margarita] The Kansas Nebraska Act promoted the expansion of slavery in other states. Powers was opposed to this act. - [Beth] And we have the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in the early 1850's. The Dred Scott decision which denied the rights of citizenship to African Americans in the late 1850's, so this is a time of tremendous change. - [Margarita] Some scholars suggest that it would have been impossible for Powers to depict the circumstance of slavery with a black nude figure. - [Beth] Because of the white marble. - [Margarita] Yes. - [Beth] And it is an interesting question, but we do get artists slightly later depicting exactly that subject. - [Margarita] So Powers created the initial full scale clay model for this subject, then he handed off the clay model to a professional team of mold carvers who created a plaster mold around the clay model and then created a positive plaster cast that was used for the replication of this statue in marble. Powers relied on a device known as a pointing machine to measure the exact contours of the plaster cast and to replicate the sculpture in the marble block. - [Beth] We have this moment in the mid to late 19th century where our reproductive technologies are increasingly availible in distributing images and this image is widely distributed and beloved. - [Margarita] And in fact, Powers issued a patent to safeguard this image from illegal duplication. - [Beth] I like to think about what was so compelling that for example, Queen Victoria sits with it, for half an hour at The Great Exhibition of 1851. - [Margarita] Viewers did associate this figure with slavery. It's something that we see in illustrated periodicals from the period, such as a caricature of a Virginian slave that was produced by John Tenniel and Punch abolitionists staged a protest when the statue was exhibited at the Crystal Place. And so this was something that was very much on contemporary viewer's minds. (mellow piano music)