Ohio History Journal

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A New Letter of Hiram Powers

A New Letter of Hiram Powers






"Make me as I am, Mr. Powers, and be true to nature always, and

in everything," Andrew Jackson reportedly told the sculptor. Hiram

Powers (1805-1873), born in Vermont, trained as a young man in

Watson's clock factory in Cincinnati, and later employed by

Dorfueille's Western Museum, scarcely needed such advice; for on

the road to making High Art he had also been a maker of writhing

wax figures controlled by automatic insides for Dorfueille's model

Hell, the too faithful realism of which caused numerous female

spectators to faint in horror. In a hitherto unpublished letter written

to an unidentified friend, Benjamin T. Reilly, Washington, D. C.,

from Italy in 1839, we see this ingenious Yankee stonecutter, later

to be the most famous American artist of the nineteenth century, at

the beginning of an energetic, ambitious, and rather homesick second

year in Italy. He had gone to Florence by way of Washington in

1837, modeling Jackson and Webster and taking along the clay

versions to be cut in "pure Carrara" marble. Although the celebrated

nude "Greek Slave" was his "masterpiece," the portrait busts, his

"marble photographs," brought him great wealth and admiration

and were probably his best artistic productions. Even Horatio

Greenough, sculptor-founder of the American "school" in Italy

twelve years before Powers' arrival, was one of the "private

individuals" eager to have a bust made at this time. Powers' lack

of formal education, for which he apologizes in this letter (his com-

petitor Greenough was a Harvard graduate), was later to become

an advantage, for his matter-of-fact manner and Yankee ability to

tell a good story helped put at ease Americans new to the effete

business of patronizing art.


* Thomas B. Brumbaugh is a member of the department of fine arts at Emory