The Greek Slave, the first publicly exhibited, life-size, American sculpture depicting a fully nude female figure, met with unprecedented popular and critical success. Arguably the most famous American sculpture ever, The Greek Slave not only won American expatriate Hiram Powers international acclaim but also enhanced the overseas reputation of American art and culture. After completing his first Greek Slave in 1844 (Raby Castle, England), Powers produced five full-size versions (also in marble), each slightly different. William Wilson Corcoran purchased this sculpture, the first of those, in 1851.
Powers chose a subject inspired by Greece’s struggle for independence in the 1820s; many literary, artistic, and critical responses to the sculpture linked it to the ongoing debate over American slavery. In Florence, Powers was overwhelmed by the demand for more full-size versions and busts. The sculpture’s renown also permeated popular culture, inspiring everything from miniature reproductions and chewing-tobacco tins to poetry and sheet music.
Powers himself described the subject of the work thus:
‘The Slave has been taken from one of the Greek Islands by the Turks, in the time of the Greek revolution, the history of which is familiar to all. Her father and mother, and perhaps all her kindred, have been destroyed by her foes, and she alone preserved as a treasure too valuable to be thrown away. She is now among barbarian strangers, under the pressure of a full recollection of the calamitous events which have brought her to her present state; and she stands exposed to the gaze of the people she abhors, and awaits her fate with intense anxiety, tempered indeed by the support of her reliance upon the goodness of God. Gather all these afflictions together, and add to them the fortitude and resignation of a Christian, and no room will be left for shame’.
Beginning as a clay model, The Greek Slave followed an arc of production that was typical of nineteenth-century marble sculpture. Powers entrusted his full-scale clay model to formatori, professional mold makers who built a plaster form around the finished clay, capturing contours and surface details in a negative impression.
This particular model is very similar aesthetically to the one held in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Figures in parianware, and the like, were created by Minton in smaller sizes, but to find one of this size of the period in plaster is rare, and we cannot find another example having been recently offered for sale.
A timeless and enduring piece and one of the most famous sculptures of the nineteenth century.