The Greek Slave
modeled 1841–43; carved 1846
66 x 19 x 17 in.
Gift of William Wilson Corcoran
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 Slave not only won Hiram Powers international acclaim but also enhanced the overseas reputation of American art and culture. After completing his first Greek Slave in 1844—now in the collection of Raby Castle, England—Powers produced five full-size replicas. William Wilson Corcoran purchased this marble, the first of those replicas, in 1851.
The event that established the Greek Slave as one of America’s most celebrated works of art was the 1847–1851 tour of two versions of the sculpture, including the Corcoran’s, around the eastern United States. Aware that the Slave’s nudity might provoke disapproval on the part of a conservative American art audience, Powers was careful to exhibit his marble with texts that stressed the subject’s “high moral and intellectual beauty.”
The figure’s nudity increased its notoriety. However, the work’s acclaim in the United States in the mid-19th century stemmed also from its relationship to recent and contemporary political events. 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.
William Wilson Corcoran displayed the prized sculpture prominently in his Washington mansion, where it attracted enormous publicity and confirmed his reputation as a discerning collector. In Florence, Powers was overwhelmed by the demand for more full-size versions and busts. The sculpture’s popularity also permeated popular culture, inspiring everything from miniature reproductions and designs for chewing-tobacco tins to poetry and sheet music.