Nudity is everywhere these days in the Internet age but Americans were first introduced to it in the arts more than 170 years ago through the sculpture of a woman called Greek Slave.
The work by Hiram Powers was the first nude sculpture of a woman widely seen by the American public and is now on exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, explores the artistic processes behind one of the most provocative pieces of the 19th Century.
“If you had access to private collections or went on a Grand Tour, you might have seen this kind of artwork, but not if you were an average American,” Karen Lemmey, curator of sculpture and organizer of the exhibition, told Hyperallergic.
Powers replicated his work in marble several times due to its huge success, although it so shocked some Americans in the age before the Civil War it also became an abolitionist icon.
“He’s referencing multiple eras of enslavement, and within a short time this piece becomes identified by abolitionists as having the potential to address slavery more broadly, global slavery, slavery in the United States,” Lemmey said.
“Even in today’s day and age, human trafficking is still a crisis. Young women and children are at the crux of the crisis, and Powers is deeply concerned about the fact that she’s a young woman, she’s fragile. The sculpture takes on new meaning as time goes on.”
She said that long run of Measured Perfection through February of 2017 allows the museum to intensely explore Powers’ craft and the evolution of technology in sculpture.
“It’s getting people to be in a museum, but to understand where objects were made,” Lemmey said. “When you come into a museum you expect to see everything finished; this is in a moment of making.”
Powers, who had patrons in the South, tried to skirt the issue of American slavery but did it indirectly by referring to the Greek War of Independence in the 1820’s, looking back to a history of enslavement through to ancient Greece.
Powers grew up in Vermont and it was Greek Slave, introduced in 1843 and which drew more than 100,000 visitors on a tour of the U.S. in 1847 which established his reputation. The woman, a classical beauty, is seen with chains on her wrists.
“He’s not going out on a limb and directly accusing the American slavery institution as wrong, he’s talking about it in the abstract in the perspective of Greek independence, and complicating it with a Christian woman who is white,” Lemmey said.
After five editions, he made a second version following the Civil War. Only sculpted in full-scale marble once, it had a major contextual alteration, the 1869 result of which is on view at the Brooklyn Museum.
“In that example he changes the very Neoclassical linked chains into a straight bar manacle which very unequivocally associates it with the American slave industry,” Lemmey said. “The piece does evolve from being something about slavery in the abstract, to about American slavery.”