The Greek Slave of American Orientalism

Essay by casopolis82University, Bachelor'sA+, July 2004

download word file, 24 pages 3.5

Downloaded 126 times

Quoting the art historian Bernard Berenson, Walter Lippmann once wrote, "'what with the almost numberless shapes assumed by an object...What with our insensitiveness and inattention, things scarcely would have for us features and outlines so determined and clear that we could recall them at will, but for the stereotyped shapes art has lent them.' The truth is even broader than that, for the stereotyped shapes lent to the world come not merely from art, ... but from our moral codes and our social philosophies and our political agitations as well." [1] There is perhaps no greater a work of art that exemplifies Lippmann's meaning than Hiram Powers' statue The Greek Slave (1844). Received in America with extraordinary fanfare, critical acclaim, and public praise, the sculpture, which toured the United States from 1847 to 1849 [2] , and its positive treatment reveal much about the prevailing social ideologies of the 19 th century, for its theme was overwhelmingly didactical in nature.

Powers chose for his idealized subject a young Greek woman who had been captured by the Turks during the Greek War of Independence; she stands, head slightly bowed, naked, with her hands manacled to a post. The explosive choice to depict The Slave in the nude, as well as the decision to place her in a specific historical context, make Powers' work paradigmatically important, as such choices elicited dramatic responses from the public, exposing contemporary gender norms as well as a psychosexual cross-section of the nineteenth century American public. However, the reactions to the sculpture are perhaps more fascinating to analyze within the context of the larger cultural proclivity towards Orientalism, a trend which pervaded almost all artistic and literary culture in the West during this time. The captivation of American viewers and their overwhelming reactions to Powers' subject's plight...