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Sculpture, Slavery, and Commerce in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World

Caitlin Beach [Columbia University]
Wyeth Fellow, 2016–2018

Carved from creamy white marble, a nude woman stands next to a hip-high support, perhaps a low post. In this photograph, her body faces us, and she looks down to our right in profile. Her wavy hair is tucked behind her ear and drawn back in a bun at the nape of her neck. Her weight rests on her left leg, on our right, and her other knee is bent. Her left arm is angled in front of her body so her hand covers her groin. Her other hand, on our left, rests on the post. Chains hang from shackles encircling her wrists. The post is covered with a cloth that gathers around the top and spirals to the ground beneath her feet, the edge trimmed with tassels. A cross and medallion peek out from under the cloth near her hand. She stands on a circular base.

Hiram Powers, The Greek Slave, model 1841-1843, carved 1846, Seravezza marble, Corcoran Collection (Gift of William Wilson Corcoran), 2014.79.37

In 1850, amid mounting debates about the abolition of slavery in
the United States, Hiram Powers’s (1805–1873) Greek Slave came to St. Louis, Missouri, on a tour of the United States that had begun in 1847. The marble sculpture, modeled by Powers in his Florence studio in 1843, depicted a white Greek woman standing nude and enchained in a Constantinople slave market. In St. Louis it was displayed in a building close to the city’s slave market. A correspondent for the prominent abolitionist newspaper The National Era commented on the exhibition of the enchained white body of The Greek Slave in a city where many black Americans remained enslaved and remarked on the sculpture’s location: “Within a few steps of the spot which thy presence is consecrating, maidens as pure and as sensitive as thou art are weekly bought and sold.”

My dissertation, completed while I was in residence at CASVA, critically interrogates the place of sculpture in an Atlantic world contoured at once by the commerce of American slavery and the campaigns mounted to end it. Sculpted depictions of enslaved and captive figures have long been understood as material sites for dialogues about abolition and emancipation. Yet renewed attention to the terms of their making, circulation, display, and reception complicates this narrative. As the writer for The National Era begins to suggest, the production and consumption of statuary also unfolded in proximity to the political economy of slavery—its geographies, its markets, and its regimes of racialized value.

In the nineteenth century, sculpture inhabited an interconnected world of art and commerce: one that spanned merchants’ exchanges and cotton factorage houses in the American South, foundries and manufacturing firms in Britain, quarries and studios in Italy, international exhibitions, touring shows, and private homes. Circulated among these contexts, it stood as a highly visible but deeply unstable site from which to interrogate the politics of slavery. I trace this paradoxical position to the ways in which the enterprise and medium of sculpture were entangled, on the one hand, with flows of Atlantic commerce connected to American plantation economies and, on the other, with modes of bodily commodification formed under slavery. In so doing I seek to raise questions about the histories that inhere in art-historical understandings of the sculptural object-as-body and to contribute to broader interdisciplinary dialogues concerning race, representation, and corporeality.

I develop these lines of argument across four chapters, beginning by casting a broader gaze on the praxis of art institutions and criticism in the southern United States in order to center the problem of the interconnection between art and the commerce of American slavery in the antebellum era. The former could not and did not exist without the latter, and this premise is crucial to case studies on works of art and their exhibition histories to follow.

Chapter 2 considers antebellum exhibitions of Powers’s Greek Slave. Drawing from new archival material concerning the sculpture’s display in the American South, I discuss how its exhibition—and the sculptural medium more broadly—were physically and conceptually embedded in the economy of slavery and its configurations of enslaved subjects as objects. These convergences in turn became the focus of redressive critique as former bondspersons and their allies mobilized Powers’s sculpture in antislavery discourse on the global stage at the Great Exhibition in London (1851).

In part prompted by the international visibility of The Greek Slave,
the sculptor John Bell (1811–1895) created statues depicting enslaved black and mixed-race women that prompted Britons in the 1850s and 1860s to consider the immorality of American slavery. Chapter 3 addresses the contradictions of this project by discussing how the modes of production and spaces of display that brought Bell’s bronze and marble work into view, from foundries in the West Midlands to exhibitions in Lancashire textile towns, remained tied to circuits of Atlantic commerce in British-made metal and slave-grown American cotton.

Together, the second and third chapters stress how sculpture interfaced with a wider world of commerce and commodification that complicated the ideological work it might be asked, expected, or presumed to perform. The final chapter expands this argument to address the paradoxical place of the sculpted body in dialogues about emancipation after 1865, centering on the making and transnational reception in Europe and America of Francesco Pezzicar’s sculpture The Abolition of Slavery in the United States (1873). Sculpture stood at the ends of slavery in the nineteenth century, operating as a vital force in abolitionist rhetoric but doing so at the edge of the institution’s geographies, economies, and afterlives.

Powers, Hiram
American, 1805 - 1873
Hiram Powers
The Greek Slave
model 1841-1843, carved 1846