Hiram Powers was born in Vermont and was working in Cincinnati as a mechanic when an event changed his life:
One day I went to the extravagant luxury of paying out a solitary quarter . . . I had in my pocket to see the Museum. But I have many times thought I never spent all the money I had so well. I saw one object in that museum which created a new and indescribable feeling in my mind. It woke up in my heart an emotion which was to become the absorbing passion of my life. It was a plaster cast of Houdon’s bust of Washington.1Lester, 1:46.
Powers would become one of the most famous sculptors in America and Europe in the mid-19th century through the success of such “ideal” works as his celebrated Greek Slave and the veracity of his naturalistic busts, such as the one of President Andrew Jackson.2Versions of Powers’s Greek Slave are owned by the Brooklyn Museum, the Newark Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Corcoran Gallery. The Jackson is in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Powers left Ohio to spend 1835–1837 in the East, mainly in Washington, modeling busts of national leaders there, and also in Boston, where he no doubt again admired the copy of Houdon’s bust of Washington at the Athenaeum.3Swan 1940, 160–68. Houdon’s image of Washington had been modeled from life when the famous French sculptor visited Mount Vernon in 1785. Powers left America in 1837 to settle permanently in Florence, where success as a portraitist came quickly.4An early biographer declared that, “In Busts, Powers is believed to have surpassed all his predecessors of all time . . . , [and] a Professor attached to the Grand Ducal Gallery of Florence . . . declare[d] that Powers’s Busts were superior to all others, ancient or modern.” Lester, 1: 8.
The sculptor began to work up his own portrait of Washington the year after he arrived in Italy, using Houdon’s bust as his model. He may have borrowed the copy owned by his friend Horatio Greenough (1805–1852), who had used it as the basis for his colossal marble image of Washington (1832–1841), commissioned by Congress for the Rotunda of the new United States Capitol.5Greenough is known to have owned a copy of Houdon’s bust of Washington. See Wright 1872, 212 and 303. Powers willingly declared his admiration for Houdon’s image at about the time he was completing his own portrait in 1844, saying that in Houdon’s characterization, “we see not only the highest degree of goodness and benevolence, but all the elements of the most grand and lofty character. . . . There is no head among all the ancients so grand and so noble . . .”6Lester, 1: 93. To the elegant head, Powers added a toga draped about the shoulders and chest, the folds of which are arranged in a superbly simplified composition.
Powers’s bust of Washington proved to be very popular. He received his first order for a marble version in 1844. Marble was the preferred medium of the lingering neoclassical taste, just as a classical toga was preferred to contemporary dress, for it endowed the subject with the senatorial virtues of Republican Rome.7About Powers’s statue of John C. Calhoun, Lester remarked that “the folds of his toga are falling gracefully around him, and the whole expression is a fine personification of the old Roman Senator” (Lester, 1: 15). It has been estimated that the professional carvers employed in Powers’s studio produced more than thirty marble copies from his original.8Wunder 1974, 2: 825–47. Each of the known examples is nearly identical to the one owned by the Department of State.9At present, it is not possible to identify the Washington in the Collection with any of the copies catalogued in Wunder’s study. The forty-two-inch-high marble pedestal upon which the bust rests has a bas-relief medallion representing a palm tree and a well, suggesting it was made for a southerner; however, it is not certain that the bust and pedestal were made as companion pieces.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.