New Church Worthies
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Bayley
The Great American Sculptor
AT the magnificent display of the arts of Peace in the Great Exhibition of 1851, the fruit of the noble aspirations of Prince Albert, it was the wide-spread conviction that the gem of the department of Sculpture was the touching and wonderful figure of the Greek Slave, now in the possession of the Duke of Cleveland, in drawing-room of Raby Castle. Everyone spoke of the Greek Slave, everyone praised it; everywhere there was astonishment expressed that America had produced an artist of such transcendent ability, as was manifested in that state; but everyone did not know that the artist was an earnest and faithful New Churchman.
It is in this sense only that we can speak Hiram Powers and several others as little known in diffusing the truths of the New Church. He was one who raised the fame of his native land for art; and zealously desired to increase the happiness of his country by spreading the truths of the New Dispensation.
Mr. Powers was born at Woodstock, a town in the State of Vermont, on the 29th of June, 1805. His father was a physician. He was eighth of a family of nine children, and very early manifested strong indications of a bright fancy, and of great mechanical ingenuity.
While Hiram was but fourteen years of age, his father migrated from New England with his family to a farm in the West, and settled six miles from Cincinnati. His early death led to a separation of the family, and Hiram went to live with an elder brother, a lawyer in Cincinnati, until he finished his school days.
He went through two or three occupations as a young man, but ultimately became employed by a Mr. Lieman Watson, who was an organ-builder and clock-maker, and here found good scope for his mechanical ingenuity. There are said to be organs still in Cincinnati whose melody his genius had greatly enriched. He made an improvement in the reed-stop, which he tuned by merely turning a screw. He gained great credit also in the management of clocks, so as to be treated by his employer more as a friend than as a servant.
This employer, Watson, was a zealous New Churchman, and from him Hiram learned, and quickly appreciated the great truths of the New Jerusalem, in which he continued to grow and to live as life and work went on.
When he was about twenty-one years of age, he became acquainted with a Prussian artist, a sculptor named EKSTEIN, and spent what time he had to spare in the studio of that gentleman: here his own deep affections were brought out, encouraged, and directed. From Ekstein also he took lessons in French and Drawing, and soon began to show good progress in modelling in wax and clay at his own rooms. Shortly after this he took the position of assistant and artist to the Western Museum at Cincinnati; and among the objects exhibited were many wax figures, and Hiram did a considerable work in mending and making them. He showed his ever bright humour in these, by presenting popular characters of the day in droll attitudes, but wonderfully life-like. Many a good story is told by the old folks of jokes played off by him in those merry days.
He continued, however, to keep on modelling, and discarded entirely the practice then common of taking masks from living persons lying down and having their faces covered with plaster, half smothering them; and took his likenesses by studying the features as if he were painting a portrait.
His genius came out more and more brightly, and calls for his work increased, so that he determined to devote himself to the art of sculpture alone; and in 1834 he removed to Washington, soon after his marriage to Miss Gibson, an amiable young lady who continued to be his help and comfort during life, and remains his widow.
At the capital of the United States he quickly made many friends, and obtained as sitters—President Jackson, Senator Calhoun, Chief Justice Marshall, and other eminent persons.
His works were appreciated there, and he was greatly encouraged by the kindly criticism of the press.
Mr. Powers spent over two years in Washington, and in 1837 determined to take up his abode in Italy, at Florence, where he could compare his work with that of the great masters of the art, for at that time there was nothing in America which he had not already greatly exceeded.
He arrived in Florence, bringing with him a number of casts he had executed in the United States. He had entered a country where the arts had been flourishing for ages, to compete with those who from their youth had studied their profession with the aid of masters, academies, and the finest examples of the art; yet what was the result?
When the American artist exhibited his busts, the very sculptors themselves were obliged to confess themselves surpassed by the stranger, and he gave an impulse in Florence to that important branch of sculpture—the execution of portrait busts.
He took up his abode in an old convent in the city, and soon afterwards commenced the series of ideal statues—commencing with Eve, which really raised him into the very first class of his art. His fame led to a visit from the world-renowned Thorwaldsen, the noble Dane who had himself reflected the highest glory on his country and the Museum containing his works—now one of the greatest attractions of Copenhagen. When the old artist, the beloved of kings and princes, stood before Power's statue of Eve, the young American modestly observed, "It is my first full-length statue, sir." "And any sculptor," replied Thorwaldsen, "might be proud to have it for his last." And then the grand old Dane left the studio, declaring that in these modern times a MICHAEL ANGELO had again arisen among men in the person of the young American.
Thorwaldsen on another occasion, when examining Power's busts, declared that the art of portraiture could go no farther. To this branch of his talents our artist applied himself with his accustomed persevering energy, and he executed more than one hundred and fifty busts, including presidents, statesmen, generals, poets (Longfellow, Bryant, Taylor and others,) and distinguished people of all kinds.
While employed on that of President John Quincy Adams, the president himself addressed and presented to him the following feeling lines, which we have extracted from Abbot's Monthly for November, 1883, a work to which in this article we are much indebted.
TO HIRAM POWERS.
Sculptor, thy hand has moulded into form
The haggard features of a toil-worn face,
And whosoever views thy work, shall trace
An age of sorrow, and a life of storm.
And can'st thou mould the heart? for that is warm;
Glowing with tenderness for all its race:
Instinct, with all the sympathies that grace
The pure and artless bosoms, where they swarm.
Artist, may fortune smile upon thy hand!
Go forth, and rival Greece's art sublime;
Return, and bid the statesmen of thy land
Live in thy marble through all after time.
Oh! snatch the fire from heaven, Prometheus stole,
And give the lifeless block a breathing soul.
—John Quincy Adams.
Washington, 25th March, 1837.
In the latter part of the struggle between Turkey and Greece, in which so many noble minds viewed with grief and indignation the barbarous and cruel deeds of the Turks, to crush out the efforts of the Greeks to secure self-government, Mr. Powers expressed his sympathy in the production of the Greek Slave. In this exquisite figure of delicate beauty, modesty, and suffering, he moved at once admiration and hearty approval from all who hated oppression, as well as patriotic delight in his own countrymen, who rejoiced in this fresh manifestation of his talent. The people of America clamoured to see it. It was sent over and publicly exhibited in all the great cities. Thousands visited it, and it became not only the gem of the Great Exhibition, but probably what it has been said still to be, "the widest known statue in the world."
Eight reproductions of this statue have been required and executed.
The statues with which it has most frequently been compared are—the Venus de Milo in Paris, the Venus de Medici, the Venus of Canova, and the Niobe in Florence, the Venus of the Capitol in Rome, and the Psyche in Naples. Beyond them all it expresses womanliness and purity, and has been known and loved above them all.
Mrs. Browning, like Powers himself a receiver of New Church principles, writes thus of the impressive figure:—
They say Ideal beauty cannot enter
The house of anguish. On the threshold stands
An alien Image with her shackled hands,
Called the Greek Slave: as if the artist meant her
That passionless perfection, which he lent her,
Shadowed not darkened when the sill expands,
To so confound man's crimes in different lands
With man's ideal sense. Pierce to the centre
Art's fiery finger, and break up ere long
The serfdom of the world! Appeal, fair stone
From God's pure heights of beauty, 'gainst man's wrong.
Catch up in thy divine face, not alone
East griefs but west—and strike and shame the strong
By thunders of white silence overthrown.
The Fisher Boy, the statue of America, and the portrait statues of the greatest men of United States—Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Daniel Webster, and others, kept Powers employed, and increased his fame unto the last: and he left to his sons the continuation of his studio, and his work, especially to Preston Powers whose name recalls the memory of his father's staunch friend in his early manhood, Mr. Preston of South Carolina.
Soon after my settlement in London, I received a call from Hiram Powers, and had thus the opportunity of making his personal acquaintance. There was a charming frankness in his manner, a brilliancy in his dark eyes, and a hearty geniality in his language, that made you at home with him at once.
His deep affection for the New Church was manifest in all he said, and in his whole bearing. He spoke of his great wish to do a statue of Swedenborg, which he wanted to make somewhat worthy of its subject. At different times of his life he returned to this idea, but something occurred again and again causing it to be deferred.
Fully aware of his father's wishes and ideas, at last this wish was carried out by Mr. Preston Powers, so far as the beautiful and noble bust is concerned, which now stands in the Swedenborg Society's large room.
On visiting Italy I stayed at Hiram Powers' request at his house, the Villa Powers, outside the Porta Romana, and learned there to esteem his dear lady, and the family. On more than one occasion since have I been welcomed to the hospitality.
When the Swedenborg Society was troubled with some temporary misrepresentation, and somewhat under a cloud, he wrote a cheering letter, expressing his hearty sympathy, and requesting (if it was thought to be of any use) that we should publish it, that everyone might know that he deemed it to be a glory to belong to the Church of the New Jerusalem.
At Florence he was universally respected as a man and a Christian. He was the steady attendant at the small Society's Sabbath worship, and the works of Swedenborg and the principles of the New Jerusalem were the themes of his happiest conversation with all to whom they were objects of interest.
At his entrance into the eternal world he had been a New Churchman close upon fifty years.
He was a sincere patriot, always regarding his country with filial love, and Woodstock the place of his birth and boyhood with undying admiration as the prettiest little town he knew.
He had hoped, ere weakness and illness came on from age, to be able to revisit the United States, at least once, for a short time: but it was not so to be. After a life of almost unfailing health, in his sixty-eighth year, there came on a general weakness and break-up for several months, probably the various symptoms and results of heart disease, concluding at last in apoplexy, on Thursday, June 27th, 1873. Up to a few days before his departure he was able to be wheeled around the beautiful garden surrounding his villa.
"The respect and love he had won for himself," said a newspaper correspondent, "was evinced by tender enquiries on all sides for news of his daily condition, and by the universal feeling shown when his death was reported, that a man of singular purity of character, and of a large-hearted nature, had passed from the scenes of earth."
Rev. Mr. Ford, the New Church minister at Florence, wrote: "A husband and father loved almost to adoration has been thus withdrawn from his family; a man of high gifts from Art, a great name from American Sculpture, and from the small Society at Florence its chief stay and ornament."
Of him it could be truly said, He lived in the Lord, and he died in the Lord. Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.