(HOST) Many Vermonters have achieved international recognition, and today commentator Tom Slayton has the story of a Wood- stock boy who found fame and fortune as one of the most important sculptors of his generation.
(SLAYTON) Most Vermonters these days have never heard of Hiram Powers. And that’s too bad, because Powers was one of the most famous Vermont artists ever, and his sculpture provides a fascinating glimpse into the politics and culture of mid-19th century America.
Powers was born in Woodstock, and generations of Woodstock school children learned in school about his life and work – he was a prime example of the local boy who had made good in the larger world.
Powers became nationally, even internationally known, and creat- ed the most famous work of art of mid-19th century America: a fetching female nude entitled “The Greek Slave”. To really appre- ciate the impact this sculpture had, you have to remember that, when Powers created it in 1847, the political issue that was already tearing America apart was slavery.
The direct reference of “The Greek Slave” was the savage war then raging between Turkey and Greece. Americans considered the Turks despots and sympathized strongly with the Greeks. And so “The Greek Slave”, a beautiful, vulnerable female, nude and in chains, would have instantly symbolized the young and tender spirit of liberty, just then blossoming throughout the world, chal- lenged by ancient tyrannies everywhere.
But Powers’ statue clearly had a further meaning. He was a strong abolitionist, and his “Greek Slave” would have moved anyone in the United States who detested American slavery. The statue didn’t have to depict a black woman – slavery was in the national mindset; people would have seen the connection immediately.
And – a further resonance – “The Greek Slave” was a nude and therefore, in sexually repressed Victorian America, possessed instant shock value. A contemporary 19th century print depicts a crowd of formally dressed museum-goers, the women bundled in the layers upon layers of petticoats, skirts and shawls that the fashion of the day required, staring balefully at the marble figure, which stands in their midst, graceful, tragically beautiful and completely naked!
To Americans of its day, the statue was a symbol of personal freedom, emerging Democracies, the spirit of Liberty and – though those who saw it in the 1840s likely didn’t even realize it – sexual freedom. Small wonder it became an instant sensation and was shown throughout the United States.
In Vermont, copies of “The Greek Slave” were installed in the State House chandelier, where they can be seen today. As re- cently as last winter there was a minor flap at the State House about where to display a lamp based on the sculpture.
And Powers is still remembered in Woodstock, where this July 29th, the 200th anniversary of his birth will be celebrated with an art show, a lecture and a panel discussion.
Even though the image itself has been tamed and surpassed by more contemporary forms of art, “The Greek Slave” still evokes the eternal themes of repression and liberty, both at home and abroad, and thus reflects both the life and times of Hiram Powers – and our own.
Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.