This Place in History: Hiram Powers


At 'This Place in History', Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins takes us to Woodstock, the birthplace of Hiram Powers.

"So we're standing on a hillside overlooking beautiful Woodstock village and on this hillside was born one of America's most famous 19th century sculptors. His name was Hiram Powers and he was born on this hillside right behind us. He was a sculptor. He did a lot of wonderful work in marble," introduced Perkins.

"He was born in Woodstock in 1805. He wasn't there long. He was there for about 13 years. As you remember we talked about the 'Year Without a Summer' and all the crops in Vermont failed. His family was one of those that left Vermont.They moved out to Ohio and it's a tragic story. His father died right after they got there. He ended up apprenticing and working in a mechanics shop, building clocks and organs. He realized he could really work well with his hands. He had this affinity for art. He was so good at doing sculptural work that he thought hey, I could make a living doing this."

"He moved to Washington D.C. and very famously sculpted Andrew Jackson's bust, who was president at the time. The critics said this isn't great. You're supposed to do an idealized version of a president and this was really warts and all, sunken cheeks because he was missing teeth. But Jackson loved it and that made Powers his name as a portrait sculptor. So that's really what he made his name of, his whole life, was portrait sculptor," said Perkins.

"Ultimately he moved to Italy, which is where most sculptors went. Because if you want to produce you work in marble, you had to go to Italy. So by the end of the 1830s, he had moved to Europe and he stayed there for the rest of his life."

"He's most famous for the Greek Slave. I say this makes Hiram Powers one of the most famous, if not the most famous, American sculptor in the 19th century. You look at any art history or history text book and you'll find it. It's the most famous sculpture of the 19th century; at least before the Civil War. In Europe, the classical female nude was very popular. He produced a lot of, we call them, allegorical figures. To be able to sell that nude female in the United States, there had to be a good story that went with it. It had to really represent something. The Greek Civil War was going on at the time. And many of the Greek Islands were being invaded by the Ottoman Turks. He produced a statue that was meant to depict a female Christian Greek woman being sold at a slave market in Istanbul. It has great meaning in the United States. People just ate it up. They wanted a copy of it."

"His cousin, Thomas Powers who stayed in Vermont ended up being the superintendent of the construction of the State House that we have now in Montpelier. He wanted to represent this very famous Vermont artist in that State House. They had the firm that was building all of the gas lamps incorporate the Greek Slave statue into most notably the chandelier in the chamber for the House of Representatives," continued Perkins.

"Very kindly, the state loaned us this gas light or what is meant to look like a gas light from the Governor's desk. It is a reproduction. This is not an original fixture from the State House, but it reflects the chandeliers in the building. That's the best example that I can bring to show you this famous statue and how it was used in people's homes. People had little statues of this that they could buy. It was used in lighting fixtures. In Vermont, it took a special meaning of course in the late 1850s as we're rolling towards the Civil War, the idea of an enslaved person being depicted as a symbol of that abolitionist fight."

For more from our 'This Place in History' series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont's roadside historic makers, click here.


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