Hiram Powers' career began with his employment at a museum of mechanical wax figures in Cincinnati, Ohio. His family had moved there from Woodstock, Vermont, where he was born. Powers' wax figures were so lifelike that women are said to have fainted. Modeling figures in wax led to his decision to become a sculptor, and with the support of patron Nicholas Longworth, Powers' career flourished. Longworth sponsored Powers' trip to Washington, DC, where the young artist made his reputation with a marble bust of Andrew Jackson (1835, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). This work was much admired for its realism, and Powers received commissions to portray many other public figures. Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and Daniel Webster were among the famous American statesmen whose portraits he modeled.
Powers was equally skilled at carving statues in the popular neoclassical style, based on ideals of beauty of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. His 1843 neoclassical sculpture The Greek Slave was shown throughout America on a highly successful tour. It established him as one of the country's greatest sculptors.
Like many American artists in the nineteenth century, Powers knew he could learn much from the paintings and sculpture to be seen in Europe. In 1837 he settled in Florence, Italy. His portrait busts were greatly admired and sought after; between 1842 and 1855 Powers completed 150 of them. He produced both realistic and idealized classical works until his death in Florence in 1873.
Powers was one of the most successful and highly regarded American sculptors of the nineteenth century. From the 1830s on, several American sculptors achieved international fame; Powers stood out among them with his talent for creating both portraits in marble and images of classical purity.
A drawing such as Powers' Study of a Hand shows a sculptor exploring three-dimensional form with pencil and paper.
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion program to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art. Produced by the Department of Education Resources, this teaching resource is one of the Gallery's free-loan educational programs.]