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Hiram Powers papers, 1819-1953, bulk 1835-1883

Biographical Note

American sculptor Hiram Powers (1805-1873) was born in Woodstock, Vermont, and lived and worked briefly in Washington, D.C. and Boston, before settling permanently in Florence, Italy. Powers is known for portrait busts of prominent American politicians and his idealized neo-classical sculptures, most notably the Greek Slave.
The second youngest of nine children, Powers moved with his family to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1817. When he was 18 he began working in a factory that repaired watches and organs, and he later worked in the mechanical department of Dorfeuille's Western Museum. There, he developed his interest in sculpture and received a commission to create wax figures for a tableau of Dante's Inferno. In 1825 he studied with the Prussian sculptor Frederick Eckstein, who taught him how to model clay and make plaster casts. His early commissions for portrait busts caught the attention of Nicholas Longworth, who became his first patron and funded his travel to Washington, DC, in 1834. While in Washington, Powers completed portrait busts of several prominent politicians, including President Andrew Jackson. He also briefly worked on several commissions in Boston. In 1837, thanks to the patronage of Colonel John S. Preston, he and his family moved to Florence, Italy. He intended to live there for only a few years, but remained there for the rest of his life.
Powers set up a studio in Florence with several assistants, and continued to work on portrait bust commissions. He and his family were active members of the intellectual community of American and English émigrés, such as Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Horatio Greenough, the Trollope family, and many others. His studio was also a frequent stop on tourists' visits to Florence. In 1839 Powers began working on idealized sculptures in the Neo-classical style, based on history, mythology, and religion. Perhaps most famous of these are Greek Slave and Fisher Boy. Completed in 1845, Greek Slave was exhibited in London and toured the United States. The sculpture received wide attention from the press for its depiction of female nudity and its philosophical significance, and established Powers' international success as a sculptor.
During his career Powers received private and government commissions for portrait busts and ideal sculptures, and sold many replicas of his work. He also invented improved tools for use in his studio, which were patented in the United States, and he developed a special finishing process for marble from the Carrara quarry. He maintained friendships with many Americans through extensive correspondence, and openly expressed his views on the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Powers' son Longworth had a photography and sculpture studio nearby, and his son Preston, also a sculptor, took over many of Hiram Powers' remaining projects at the time of his death in 1873.