Biography

Hiram Powers was the dean of American sculptors in Italy. Born in Woodstock, Vermont, the thirteen-year old went west with his farming family to Ohio in 1818–19. His father died of malarial fever only a few months later, and, in 1820, Powers, also suffering from the ill effects of the disease, went to live with his older brother, Benjamin, in Cincinnati, where he was able to continue his education. The boy possessed a startling and unmistakable mechanical genius, which was soon recognized at Luman Watson’s clock and organ factory, where he worked in 1823. Powers was attracted to sculpture and began to study locally with Frederick Eckstein, a German-born sculptor and art teacher, who taught him how to model in clay and cast into plaster. By 1828, Powers was the mechanical supervisor at Dorfueille’s Western Museum, where his moving tableau model of The Inferno attracted national notice. In 1829, the young Cincinnati mechanic/artist, fortified with money from local supporters, traveled east, hoping to go to Italy to study and work. His funds, however, stretched no farther than New York, where he was able to see the work of other artists and sculptors before returning to Cincinnati. At home, Powers enjoyed the patronage of Nicholas Longworth, one of the wealthiest men in America, who lived in Cincinnati and loyally supported local artists. In 1834, Longworth financed a trip for Powers to Washington, D.C., where the artist aimed to build a reputation. He was entirely successful in this goal, modeling a marble bust of President Andrew Jackson that was at the same time naturalistic and ennobling. The Jackson commission established him professionally, and during his two-year stay in the nation’s capital he produced busts of such noteworthies as John Marshall, John Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Martin Van Buren, and John Quincy Adams.

In 1837, Powers and his family left for Italy. The young American established himself in Florence, where he was welcomed and aided by Horatio Greenough, the first American Neo-Classical sculptor to settle in Italy. Powers remained in Italy for the rest of his life, presiding over a growing American colony of Neo-Classical sculptors who chose to live and work in Florence. He continued to produce portrait busts as well as ideal works, achieving his greatest fame with the Greek Slave—the full-size standing version modeled in 1843, and the bust-size version, over one hundred of which were eventually executed, first modeled in 1845–46. Powers’s work was a mix of Neo-Classicism and naturalism, and as such had a strong appeal to American taste.

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