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
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.
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.