Art Finder Text Detail  
Item Actions
Ratings (0)

Portrait Bust of George Washington:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
  • Hiram Powers was born in Vermont, and moved to Ohio as a youth. At the age of 30, he sailed to Italy where he spent most of his life. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he achieved widespread recognition in Europe as well as the United States. He is one of the three major American sculptors of this period (others were Horace Greenough and Thomas Crawford).
  • Powers epitomizes the mid-19th century American artist who was technically very competent and worked in the popular neo-classical style.
  • In his Italian studio, Powers employed many skilled stone workers. They did the initial cutting and roughing out of the stone for Powers' sculptures, and then he refined and polished the pieces.
  • Powers also did a life-sized standing figure of Washington in everyday 18th-century civilian dress.
Prior to the American Revolution, gravestones were the type of sculpture most frequently commissioned. However, after the Revolution, the desire to commemorate great leaders and important historic events led to the creation of countless commemorative portraits and the beginning of a monumental sculpture tradition in America. Often, the commissions were given to European sculptors. Portrait busts, such as this one, and full statues of George Washington were by far the most numerous of these commissions, which were used to adorn the many new public buildings being built.
This is an idealized portrait bust of Washington, not a faithful copying of nature. The sculpture, made in the Neo-classical style (one based on a renewal of the Classical styles of Ancient Greece and Rome) depicts Washington not in contemporary dress, but as a Greek nobleman or Roman senator draped in a toga. (In the 19th century, this was standard garb for the depiction of public figures.) The toga gives Washington heroic stature by linking him to the Roman republic and the ideals it represented. This is fortified by his jowls and prominent wrinkles, which underline his age, wisdom, and dignity.

Powers' extraordinary skill in the technique of sculpting marble is evident in the range of textures he has carved convincingly (such as skin, hair, and cloth) so that they appear soft and pliable despite this very hard stone.

This work displays Powers' tremendous admiration for Washington, which he expressed in a letter to the Secretary of State of Louisiana saying, "I suppose Washington to have been greatest, when, by his own voluntary act, he did all he could to make himself least. . . His retirement from public life to domestic pursuits was the crowning glory of Washington." Washington's refusal to serve a third term in office endeared him to many Americans as someone who acted in the best interests of his country rather than for personal gain. This characteristic inspired a well-known comparison between Washington and the legendary Roman figure of Cincinnatus, a farmer who left his plow, picked up arms and fought when called upon, returned home when his duty was done, and expected no recognition or compensation for serving his country. This comparison provided yet another parallel between the colonies and the ancient Romans.

Use on the following tours:
  • American Art
  • People and Places
  • Heroes and Heroines
  • Classics and the Classical Influence
  • Highlights of the Museum's Collection
  • A costume tour
Comments (0)
Tags (0)
Source: Docent Manual entry for Hiram Powers, <i>Portrait Bust of George Washington,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009