Tuesday, 9 June 2009

American Venus: Eve Tempted by Hiram Powers

Eve Tempted (1842)

Dr Frederic Septimus Leighton, Lord Leighton's father, tended to think of art as an accomplishment rather than a career. Nevertheless he was proud enough of his son's skill, during their time in Florence in the mid 1840s, to show some of young Frederic's drawings to American sculptor Hiram Powers. When asked if Leighton should be allowed to follow a career as an artist Powers reputedly answered, "Sir you cannot help yourself, nature has made him one already." Powers support was important in acclimatising Leighton's family to the idea that he should be a full-time artist. Leighton also developed an interest in sculpting, producing a number of sculptures alongside his paintings.

The established sculptor and the budding artist could not have had more differing backgrounds, however. Leighton's family were very wealthy, to the extent that Leighton himself never had to support himself financially wheras Power's family were dirt poor farmers from Woodstock Vermont.

Hope (1869)

Powers was born on June 29th 1805 moving, with his family, to Ohio at the age of 13. After a year of school he did a number of jobs before being employed at Luman Watson's clock factory. Luman also owned an organ factory and Powers started to model some of the figures used on organs at that time. He showed an immediate aptitude and by 1826 he was frequenting the studio of German born sculptor Frederick Eckstein. He studied informally under the sculptor whilst working at a local museum where he created figures for the exhibits. Lacking any real formal training his natural talent was such that by 1835 he visited Washington where he produced a sculpture of Andrew Jackson that was so successful it led to many society commissions. Financially secure at last he left the United States in 1837, with his wife Elizabeth and their two young children, to settle in Florence where he lived for the rest of his life, producing portrait and display busts as well as full-length figures.

Eve Tempted was his first full length female nude and Agent Triple P took this picture of it at the Smithsonian American Museum in Washington this March. Powers died in Florence on June 27, 1873. The entire contents of his studio, including all his plaster models, about 20 marble sculptures, and his tools, casts, and manuscripts, were all acquired by the Smithsonian. Given that he was regarded as one of the finest sculptors of the nineteenth century it is odd that there is no biography of him. This may be explained by the fact that whilst nineteenth century neo-classical painting has been rehabilitated in the minds of the critics and public this has not happened to the same extent with sculpture.

Clytie (1868)

They also had on display several of his classical busts including this one of Clytie. She was a water nymph who fell in love with Apollo and was unable to take her eyes off him as he flew across the sky. Eventually she turned into a sunflower, her face forever following the sun. Powers probably based his sculpture on a Roman original which he saw in the British Museum although the sunflower motif in her hair is his own.

More on Powers and his most famous sculpture, The Greek Slave another time.

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