An Abolitionist Symbol: Hiram Powers’s “Greek Slave”

Hiram Powers’s (American, 1805–1873) full-length nude Greek Slave was the most famous sculpture of the nineteenth century. The subject is a chained Greek woman who has been taken captive by Turkish Ottoman forces during the War of Greek Independence (1821–1832) and publicly displayed for sale in a Constantinople (now Istanbul) slave market. A prominent Christian cross by her right hand symbolizes her faith, while a locket poignantly represents severed family ties.

Excepted from de Young Museum exhibition text:

“As this eloquent statue traverses the land, may many a mother and daughter of the Republic be awakened to a sense of the enormity of slavery, as it exists in our midst! Thus may Art, indeed, fulfill its high and holy mission! Let the solemn lesson sink deep into the hearts of the fair women of the North and of the South! Waste not your sympathies on the senseless marble, but reserve some tears for the helpless humanity which lies quivering beneath the lash of American freemen.”—Unidentified Author

Greek Slave, one of the earliest fine art nudes exhibited publicly in the United States, generated popular and critical acclaim, as well as enormous controversy. Although the famous Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher declared the statue to be indecent, most viewers embraced her cover story—that she embodied Christian faith and courage in the face of great adversity.The Greek struggle to establish a modern democracy garnered strong support in the United States. However, critics also connected Powers’s enslaved white subject to the contemporary enslavement of African Americans, and the statue was adopted as a potent propaganda symbol by abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, who kept a small replica in the parlor of his Washington, DC, home.
John Absolon (British, London 1815–1895), View in the East Nave (The Greek Slave, by Power), from Recollections of the Great Exhibition, 1851, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

When Greek Slave was exhibited as the centerpiece of the American Pavilion at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London’s Crystal Palace, the African American writer and abolitionist William Wells Brown, who had escaped slavery in the American South, provocatively placed an engraving depicting an enslaved Virginia woman (below) at the feet of the statue, explicitly linking the statue to slavery in the United States.

John Tenniel, The Virginian Slave, Intended as a Companion to Power’s ‘Greek Slave’, in “Punch” 20 (1851): 236. University of Virginia Library

I was able to photograph the ca. 1866 plaster pointing copy during my SARF fellowship at the Smithsonian. You can see clips and hear more about it at SAAM. To learn more about the exhibition visit Unseen: Our Past in a New Light, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.