Hiram Powers’ Lamp

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(HOST) Commentator Anne Galloway thinks that one of the most unexpected news stories of 2004 involved the legacy of Woodstock native Hiram Powers, the most renowned neoclassical sculptor in America.

(GALLOWAY) One hundred fifty-seven years after the American public was first scandalized by Hiram Powers’ life-size statue of a nude maiden in chains, a replica of his marble tour de force called “The Greek Slave” made the news again.

When “The Greek Slave” was first exhibited in 1847 at the National Academy of Design in New York, it was an overnight sensation – once the public got over the initial shock. It was exhibited in cities all over the East Coast and in London, attracting throngs of people. It became the symbol of the anti-slavery movement in America – and the first mass-marketed piece of American sculpture.

“The Greek Slave” literally became a fixture in the Vermont State House in 1859 during the reconstruction of the capitol building. Four small metal replicas of the statue are part of a massive faux gold and bronze gas lamp fixture in the House chamber, and the docent who gives tours of the State House to schoolchildren often points out the nudes and explains what they represent as part of a short history lesson on slavery.

Polly Billings, a founder of the Friends of the State House, calls it The People’s Museum and it’s one of the biggest tourist draws in the state, with approximately 150,000 visitors every year. For the last 25 years, the Friends have worked to restore the State House room by room to its original glory.

State curator David Schutz says a replica of the original chandelier was completed just this year. But Schutz worried that the overhead fixture wouldn’t shed enough light on the governor’s desk, so he ordered a period desk lamp – with a miniature replica of “The Greek Slave” for the base. The lamp was intended to be the crowning touch for, perhaps, the most cherished room in the capital building – the governor’s office.

But Gov. Douglas wanted it moved. He didn’t object to the piece of art per se, but he didn’t want to have to explain it to a visiting third-grader. Press Secretary Jason Gibbs also fretted that the lamp could be knocked over and consequently broken. The story made the front pages of several Vermont newspapers and The New York Times, but Douglas stood firm and the lamp will be moved to the Cedar Creek Room on January 4th and returned to the governor’s ceremonial office after the legislative session.

Whatever his reasons for moving the lamp to a new location in the State House, thanks to the controversy, the governor has contributed to a fresh public awareness of a nude statue that is identified with the abolitionist movement and the state’s very early role in that struggle. Curator Schutz says there has even been a modest spike in visitor attendance since the story hit.

And I’m delighted that the media spotlight has once again discovered the work of Hiram Powers – just in time for the two hundredth anniversary of the sculptor’s birth, July 29, 2005.

Anne Galloway reports on the visual arts for The Times Argus. She spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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