Art: Review: Genius in Marble

Hiram Powers' sculpture lights up the Taft Museum of Art

May 23, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Taft Museum of Art

Hiram Powers' "Greek Slave," designed and modeledcirca 1841, is currently on display at the Taft Museum of Art

Now that the 21st century is off and running, why should we care about white marble statues, which are so 19th century, right? Because they're cool, very cool. And sexy.

Example? See Hiram Powers: Genius in Marble, which recently opened at the Taft Museum of Art.

A front runner in the medium, Vermont-born, Cincinnati-bred Hiram Powers got his start with serious help from Nicholas Longworth, who lived in the graceful house that has become the Taft Museum. It is satisfying and fitting that this exhibition — perhaps the most ambitious the museum has ever mounted and, surprisingly, the first broad consideration of Powers' work — appears at the Pike Street location where Powers himself found early encouragement. Later, his career established, the term "genius" would be almost automatically linked to his name.

He was an inventive boy. As a teenage grocery assistant he used off moments to fashion sculptures of a sort from blocks of butter.

His next job was with Cincinnati clockmaker Luman Watson, where he improved the functioning of clock movements and on the side, studying with local sculptor Frederick Eckstein, completed his first portrait busts.

In 1828, at the age of 23, he was hired by the Western Museum as "inventor, wax-figure maker and general mechanical contriver," and was admirably fitted for the job. His talents led him to Italy and to becoming the most famous American artist of his day.

Powers' own picture, the first thing the visitor to the exhibition sees, shows a dark-eyed man with an intense gaze. (That gaze would have held my attention.) The next gallery plunges immediately into the most famous, most controversial and most widely exhibited of his works, "Greek Slave."

Designed and modeled in the early 1840s, after he was established in Florence, and executed in six full-length editions as well as scores of bust-format versions, the figure clad only in her chain sent shock waves through Victorian sensibilities. A full-length "Greek Slave" toured the U.S., sometimes escorted by Powers' friend, Cincinnati artist Miner Kellogg.

The piece references certain contemporary concerns, as the slave represents a young Greek woman taken prisoner during early 19th-century Greek wars of independence, when America strongly sympathized with the Greeks (Christians) against the Turks (non-Christian). Her obliviousness to her nudity was meant to reflect a "trust in Divine Providence." Although none of the full-length versions are available for this exhibition, response to "Greek Slave" is vividly suggested by the astonishing press reaction the work invoked in its day.

The exhibition continues with a section reflecting the Cincinnati years, another devoted to Powers' working methods and elements from his studio, an area showing the portrait busts that now seem his greatest accomplishment and, seen in a marvelous hexagonal suggestion of a Victorian parlor, the ideal works: imaginative and allegorical figures. The walls here are red, a color Powers considered the best background for his marble figures.

Reflected light gives them a healthy glow. He was adamant about light, says chief curator Lynne Ambrosini, who organized the show with Boston University doctoral candidate Rebecca Reynolds as co-curator.

"When lighted from above, he said, the shadow of the nose should not touch the upper lip, so that the mouth is not obscured," says Ambrosini. "We've also mounted the busts in this section on fluted columns, as he preferred."

Powers' studio became a must stop for those on the Grand Tour, and after his death in 1873 its contents eventually went to the Smithsonian Institution. Ambrosini and Reynolds had access to the wealth of letters, records and artifacts there. Immersed in this material and other sources, they made discoveries and found surprises. The most important insight was to learn that unlike most sculptors who left cutting of the marble to trained assistants, Powers almost always did the finishing work himself.

"The degree of his involvement was unusual," says Ambrosini, "especially with works for Cincinnatians."

His inventiveness, first put to use at the Western Museum, continued unabated — sculptors continue to use a tool he developed to this day.

Although Powers' ideal works were highly prized in their time, today the portrait busts seem the greater accomplishment. Interestingly, he designed a rolling tool that was a finishing touch on skin areas of portraits, but not applied to the ideal figures. He was a "warts and all" portraitist (see the knob on Alphonso Taft's left temple and wrinkles around the eyes) but aimed to convey the sitter's character and personality as well as simply recording features. Because this exhibition includes certain preliminary studies in clay and plaster we can see choices made as work progresses.

The exhibition spans the whole of Powers' career, but concentrates on work with Cincinnati connections. Powers always remembered his early support here, and took special care with work for Cincinnatians. We see Longworth himself in marble, as well as Robert Todd Lytle, whose house stood on land we now call Lytle Park, and Judge Jacob Burnet, whose name now defines both a street and a park. Burnet, in fact, is also represented in the Taft's Keystone Gallery exhibition, Around Town: 19th Century Books on Cincinnati.

In 1847 Burnet published "Notes on Early Settlers." This little show is a pleasant footnote to Powers' exhibition, illuminating as it does the young city that Powers left to get training he couldn't receive here, but that he never forgot. Grade: A

HIRAM POWERS: GENIUS IN MARBLE is on view at the Taft Museum of Art through Aug. 12.