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
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 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.