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 Greek Slave not only won American expatriate Hiram Powers international acclaim but also enhanced the overseas reputation of American art and culture. After completing his first Greek Slave in 1844 (Raby Castle, England), Powers produced five full-size versions (also in marble), each slightly different. William Wilson Corcoran purchased this sculpture, the first of those, 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 Mr. Corcoran's, around the eastern United States. Aware that the slave's nudity might provoke disapproval on the part of a conservative American audience, Powers was careful to supplement his exhibition with texts stressing the subject's ‘high moral and intellectual beauty.'"
In fact, the figure's nudity increased its notoriety, but the work's acclaim in the mid-19th-century United States stemmed also from its relationship to 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.
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 renown also permeated popular culture, inspiring everything from miniature reproductions and chewing-tobacco tins to poetry and sheet music.
H. POWERS. sc. / 1846.
Ordered from the artist by William Ward, 11th baron Ward [1817-1885, later 1st earl of Dudley], but released by him prior to the sculpture's completion; purchased 1848 by James Robb, New Orleans; purchased April 1850 by the Western Art Union, Cincinnati; offered by them 20 February 1851 as the first lottery prize; won by I. d'Orsay, New Orleans; purchased 1851 by William Wilson Corcoran [1798-1888], Washington; deeded 1869 by him to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; accessioned 1873 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- [Tour of the sculpture under the management of Miner K. Kellogg], National Academy of Design, New York; The Odeon, Washington; Carroll Hall, Baltimore; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1847-1848.
- Cooke's Gallery, New Orleans, 1848-1849.
- Gallery of the Western Art Union, Cincinnati, 1850-1851.
- Tastemakers, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 18 January-24 February 1957.
- Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, unpublished checklist.
- The Century Club Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 21 July - 13 September 1993, unpublished checklist.
- Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1882: 63, no. 1.
- Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1887: 70-71, no. 1.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Catalogue of the Sculptures in the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1922: 61, no. 2044, repro.