One of the most popular American statues of the 19th century, Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave (1844), portrays a Greek girl captured by the Turks and put up for sale in a Middle Eastern slave market. The sculptor said of his work: "As there should be a moral in every work of art, I have given to the expression of the Greek slave what trust there could still be in a Divine Providence for a future state of existence, with utter despair for the present, mingled somewhat of scorn for all around her . . . It is not her person but her spirit that stands exposed." Powers made six versions of the statue, differing somewhat in the shape of the slave's chains and other details. Miniature copies of the statue were immensely popular for the rest of the century, "so undressed, yet so refined, in sugar-white alabaster, exposed under little glass covers in such American homes as could bring themselves to think such things right," as Henry James sarcastically put it [both quoted in Oliver Larkin, Art and Life in America (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960), 180, 181].
Robert Hughes argues that: "By the 1840s Powers was incontestably the most famous sculptor America had yet produced, and he became so (inside America) with one marble, The Greek Slave, c. 1843, an adapted copy of the Uffizi's Medici Venus, with some chains on her wrists as a cache-sexe. This, Americans thought, was the first truly moral nude they had ever seen . . . . Powers astutely explained, in the pamphlet that accompained his statue on its American tour in 1847, that his slave's nudity was not her fault: she had been divested of her clothes by the lustful and impious Turks who put her on the auction block; thus her unwilling nakedness signified the purest form of the Ideal, the triumph of Christian virtue over sin. This sales pitch, aimed point-blank at Puritan sensibilities, worked so well that American Clergymen urged their congregations to go and see The Greek Slave." From American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 216-217.
The image, from Joy Kasson, Marble Queens and Captives: Women in Ninteenth-Century American Sculpture (New Haven: Yale UP, 1990), 71, shows the statue displayed at the Dusseldorf Gallery, New York City, R. Thew engraving (Larkin 181). "Notice the striking contrast between the fussily overdressed Victorians gazing in fascination at the uncluttered white marble nude," Kasson comments.
Clerical enthusiasm for what Hughes calls Powers' "moral nude" echoed their endorsement of the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836). Here too an innocent, a young Protestant woman, is subjected to unspeakable abuse against her will in a Montreal convent. In one of the most sensational passages, Maria described her interview with the Mother Superior:
. . . it only remained that I should swear the three oaths customary on becoming a nun; and that some explanation would be necessary from her. . . . I must be informed that one of my great duties was to obey the priests in all things; and this I soon learnt, to my utter astonishment and horror, was to live in the practice of criminal intercourse with them. . . .The priests, she said, were not situated like other men, being forbidden to marry; while they lived secluded, laborious, and self-denying lives for our salvation. They might, indeed, be considered our saviors, as with their service we could not obtain pardon of sin, and must go to hell.
From what she had said, I could draw no other conclusions but that I was required to act like the most abandoned of beings, and that all my future associations were habitually guilty of the most heinous and detestable crimes.
. . . . .
She gave me another piece of information, which excited other feelings in me, scarcely less dreadful. Infants were sometimes born in the Convent, but they were always baptised and immediately strangled. This secured their ever-lasting happiness; for the baptism purifies them from all sinfulness, and being sent out of the world before they had time to do anything wrong, they were at once admitted into heaven. How happy, she exclaimed, are those who secure immortal happiness to such little beings!
Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures became a runaway bestseller with perhaps 300,000 copies sold by the beginning of the Civil War. One attraction was its supposed documentation of Catholic immorality. The 1830s witnessed the beginnings of a widespread campaign against Catholics which peaked in the successes of the Know-Nothing Party in the elections of 1854. But the specifically sexual character of that immorality also contributed to the book's success. One could read of orgies, of innocent virgins sacrificed to depraved older men, of complete sexual subservience, with a completely clear conscience because one was doing one's duty as a good Protestant and good American. [Ruth Hughes at the University of Pennsylvania provides a good treatment of the novel's origins and the sad fate of its putative author.]
As with Maria Monk's tale, Powers' statue allowed respectable, Church-going people to think about the unthinkable. This may account for a curious aspect of its reception. As Joy Kasson noted, "on its display at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851 it inspired the British satirical magazine Punch [20 (1851): 236] to remind readers of the actual fact of American slavery with a parodic companion piece 'The Viginian Slave' (Kasson 67)." [A discussion of this and other works is CLASSICAL MYTHS AND AMERICAN LITERATURE, Elzbieta Foeller-Pituch, Northwestern University.]
Punch may have reacted satirically, but other Britons flocked to see the statue. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was sufficiently moved to write a sonnet:
For a further discussion of this motif, the shackled woman in art, see Elizabeth Lee's essay at The Victorian Web at Brown University.
There is a very rich collection of resources at the Uncle Tom's Cabin site at the University of Virginia, including contemporary comments on the statue.
Some initial reactions:
Elizabeth Lee, in her discussion of artistic renderings of women in chains, quotes historian Peter Gay that "the representation of a beautiful girl in shackles, helpless before her sensual onlookers, must have given rise to intimations of sadistic pleasures." If so, few American or English onlookers were willing to admit it. A poem in The Knickerbocker Magazine by "R. S. C." declaims:
'NAKED, yet clothed with chastity, SHE stands;
And as a shield throws back the sun's hot rays,
Her modest mien repels each vulgar gaze.
Her inborn purity of soul demands
Freedom from touch of sacrilegious hands,
And homage of pure thoughts. . . . . . . .
This, it turns out, was a virtually univeral reaction to the statue. One can see it in the Rev. Orville Dewey's essay on "Powers' Statues." It is insisted upon by the New York Daily Tribune in a notice probably written by editor Horace Greeley. It is worth noting what characteristics of the statue, according to contemporaries, "repel each vulgar gaze." There is "her modest mien," the downcast glance. There is the positioning of her left hand (at the Uncle Tom's Cabin site you can see an enlargement of this detail). There is the artist's assurance that "It is not her person but her spirit that stands exposed." There is, in the phrase of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the statue's "passionless perfection." There is too what she called its "thunders of white silence." The pivotal word in that phrase may be "white." No self-respecting American would admit to sexual fantasies of dominating an innocent white woman. That is left to the depraved priest of Monk's imagining or the lustful Turk.
Punch made fun of American solicitude for "The Greek Slave," but few Americans drew the parallel between the situations of the Greek and the "Virginian Slave." One who did was John Greenleaf Whittier in his "The Christian Slave." Whittier, however, did not address Powers' statue directly. Instead, in a reference to the Muslim practice of freeing any slave who converts to Islam, he offers:
Cheers for the turbaned Bey
Of robber-peopled Tunis! he hath torn
The dark slave-dungeons open, and hath born
Their inmates into day:
But our poor slave in vain
Turns to the Christian shrine his aching eyes;
It rites will only swell his market price,
And rivet on his chain.
Since slave auctions were a common occurence in the American South where attractive young females fetched prices as high as so-called prime field hands or even higher, it was no secret to contemporaries that any number of Americans behaved exactly like the Turks who had supposedly enslaved Powers' figure and were about to bid on her. This was a point made again and again by abolitionists. Yet Whittier explicitly did not address it in his poem. Instead, although his Christian Slave is identified as a woman, he turned to the masculine pronoun to refer to "our poor slave."
"The Greek Slave," however hapless her circumstances, was an image of perfection, at least according to contemporaries. Again it is useful to notice what characteristics and/or traits contributed to this perfection. Unlike the public reaction to Lavinia Warren, the "Little Queen of Beauty," no one referred to Powers' figure's "elegant neck and shoulders" or to her "bosom," although it actually was a sculptor's study. Instead it was her modesty, her "white silence," and her acceptance of her fate that defined her.
Note the parallels with Cora Hatch. Powers' Slave was chained, literally bound to do her master's will. Hatch was entranced, her will taken over by another. Powers' figure embodied purity, "thunders of white silence." So did the girlish Cora Hatch. Yet both stood on the brink of defilement. The Greek Slave's "inborn purity of soul demands," according to the poem quoted above, "Freedom from touch of sacrilegious hands." Yet her fate was to be installed in a harem. The popular imagination could picture a similar fate for Hatch. Rumors of "free love" and worse swirled about spiritualism. Some told of orgies in which hypnotized females did the bidding of their sexual masters, not unlike the sisters in Monk's imaginary convent. B. F. Hatch would claim, in the midst of the first divorce proceeding, that the rumors were true. In prose worthy of Maria Monk he reported:
Private circles form no small share of this evil and delusion; these are formed by placing a man by the side of each woman, and all joining hands. The affectional and emotional feelings are actively exercised, and the magnetic force of the entire circle becomes concentrated upon the most beautiful and susceptible female members, and the result may easily be conjectured. The magnetism and lust of the circle upon the susceptible members, are taken to be the control and dictation of spirits, and, therefore, rendering submission becomes a religious duty. There are, also, those who are called "Developing Mediums," claiming that they are the appointed agents through whom the Divine inflatus flows for the development of "passional attraction" in females--that all functions are rendered healthy and vigorous only through exercise; and that the fastidiousness which prevails among those ladies who do not believe in promiscuous concubinage, arises from a lack of physical and spiritual development.
A Small Collection of Powers' Statues