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: Gift of Marble Bust of Washington


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Institute has recently received, as a gift from the Minneapolis Tower Company, a marble bust of George Washington by Hiram Powers. During the coming week the bust will be exhibited in the Rotunda in commemoration of the birth date of America’s first President. Although it is not so appealing, and certainly not so idealized, as some of the painted portraits of Washington, this bust is characterized by the simplicity and directness that marked Powers’ work in the field in which he excelled. Even today, when his imaginative creations are generally considered to be weak and sentimental, his busts of men are recognized as faithful, convincing portraits. Powers himself thought of them as inconsequential beside such works as The Greek Slave and Eve Disconsolate. Yet it is by the male busts that Powers’ reputation as a sculptor is measured. He was one of the first American artists to turn to sculpture, and it is to his credit that he succeeded in impressing the art of sculpture on the American mind. He was largely self-taught, but his achievements in his chosen field, however primitive they may in many respects appear to be today, helped to lay the foundation for what was to come in the way of American sculpture.Powers was born in Woodstock, Vermont in 1805. When he was still a boy his family moved to Cincinnati, and it was there that he discovered his ability to model faces. Following a period of employment in a dime museum, where he modelled wax figures and later made portraits of celebrities, Powers realized that a larger field lay ahead of him. After studying briefly with a German modeller in Cincinnati he went to Washington, where he received several commissions. Some two years thereafter he found it possible to go to Italy.Powers established himself in Florence, where Horatio Greenough, who had preceded him by twelve years, welcomed and assisted him. Powers also made the acquaintance of Hawthorne, and it is interesting to note that the famous author found him a stimulating companion whose comments were worthy of frequent quotation in the Italian Notebook. It was in Florence that Powers produced The Greek Slave, which brought him instant fame on both sides of the Atlantic. In America the nudity of one of the first nudes by a native sculptor was conceded to be so chaste and so moving that it was unanimously acknowledged with pride by the artist’s fellow countrymen. Numerous reproductions of the figure were made, one of them reputedly bringing the large sum of eleven thousand dollars at the sale of the celebrated Demidoff Collection.Today, however, The Greek Slave has lost its power to charm. Powers’ place in American sculpture is seen to rest rather on male busts such as that of Washington now in the Institute. The portrait, formerly in the collection of Joseph Drexel, of Philadelphia, is one of three busts of Washington placed by Wilbur B. Foshay in the tower which bears his name. The three busts, one in marble and two in bronze, were unveiled when the Foshay Tower was dedicated as a Washington memorial in the late summer of 1929. Another replica of this marble bust, executed in Florence in 1853, is in Mount Vernon. As a portrait of the first President of the United States and as an example of early native sculpture, it is a welcome addition to the American collection.
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Source: "Gift of Marble Bust of Washington," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 41, no. 7 (February, 1952): 33-34.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009