In 1847 and 1848, as their fellow Americans fought the Mexican War, crowds in Washington, DC, and then all over the nation, flocked to see her.
In an era that had much less leisure time and fewer artistic crowd scenes, as many as 100,000 people ultimately flocked “to worship” at her “shrine of beauty.” She was breathtaking, heartbreaking, endlessly fascinating. In a Victorian Age that often choreographed elaborate emotional operas ping-ponging back and forth between repression and abandon, men and women indulged themselves, becoming overwrought. Some sighed. Some wept. This “beauty is so pure, so lofty, so sacred,” it “takes such a clinging hold upon the heart, and so subdues the whole man, that time must pass before one could speak of its merits in detail without doing violence to the emotions awakened in him,” The Courier and Enquirer reported. “I could have wept with a perfect agony of tears” upon seeing her, wrote Clara Cushman in Neal’s Saturday Gazette. The “two great sources of human interest, the human body, and, shining through it, the human soul, are here,” wrote G.H. Calvert in The Literary World, overcome by her “indescribable symmetry … matchless grace” and “infinite beauty.”
A poet R.S.C. in The Knickerbocker Magazine revealing one striking factor – that she was naked – gushed:
“NAKED, yet clothed with chastity, SHE stands;
And as a shield throws back the sun’s hot rays,
Her modest mien repels each vulgar gaze.
Her inborn purity of soul demands
Freedom from touch of sacrilegious hands.”
Her nakedness was so scandalous many exhibit halls posted certain hours for male-only viewing, and other times allowed men and women to visit together. Seeking to preserve mass virtue amidst this affront, The Reverend Orville Dewey insisted she was nevertheless “clothed all over with sentiment; sheltered, protected by it from every profane eye. Brocade, cloth of gold, could not be a more complete protection than the vesture of holiness in which she stands.”
The National Era’s cynical correspondent dismissed the one offended schoolmarm he saw at the exhibit by recalling the “English prude” at the Louvre, relishing her moral superiority saying “Oh! La! That is a very indelicate picture.” A “pure-minded daughter of France” replied: “I think the indelicacy is in the remark, not in the painting.”
Part of the passion stemmed from the paradox you encountered. You were drawn to her face’s beauty, her shoulders’ sensuality, her body’s smoothness. But as you gazed downward, you saw her left hand delicately covering her most private parts was bound with a heavy chain to her right hand, which rested on her discarded robe.
Surprisingly, this sensation was a marble statue, “The Greek Slave,” sculpted in 1842 by Hiram Powers. The statue ostensibly condemned the Ottoman Turks’ brutal crackdown during the Greek War of Independence, from 1821 to 1822. But Powers’ friend and tour manager, Miner Kellogg, explained in a visitors’ pamphlet that: “The cross and locket, visible amid the drapery, indicate that she is a Christian, and beloved.” More than that, the statue “represents a being superior to suffering, and raised above degradation, by inward purity and force of character. Thus the Greek Slave is an emblem of the trial to which all humanity is subject, and may be regarded as a type of resignation, uncompromising virtue, or sublime patience.”
To many Americans, the symbolism was less universal, more pointed. Abolitionists resented the hypocrisy on display, especially in the South, with the sculpture appearing in “Baltimore, Washington, Louisville, St. Louis and New Orleans,” after New York, New England, Philadelphia. One anonymous anti-slavery crusader wondered how someone “can weep at sight of an insensate piece of marble which images a helpless virgin chained in the market-place of brutal lust, and still more brutal cupidity, and yet listens unmoved to the awful story of the American slave!” “’Why limit your sympathies?’ was the mute language of the marble,” another abolitionist in The National Era seethed. “Why limit your application of the principles of justice?”
Of course, even many Northerners sympathized more easily with a white, Christian inanimate object than with real black slaves. And it is not clear that Hiram Powers intended to boost abolitionism, although the older he got, the more anti-slavery he became.
Still, modern scholars including the Smithsonian’s Karen Lemmey, consider the oft-forgotten “Greek Slave” “arguably the most famous sculpture of the 19th century.” Usually, the 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin gets the credit as abolitionism’s great artistic trigger, especially because President Abraham Lincoln supposedly told the author Harriet Beecher Stowe when they met in 1862: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”
Adding “The Greek Slave” to the storyline helps. We love Grand Slam History, reducing the past to one base-clearing wallop after another. And while big moments sometimes leave huge legacies, history is more fully lived and made in the play-by-play rather than the highlight reel.
And, lest we be too judgmental about our morally obtuse ancestors, who cried over a single block of marble while oppressing 3.2 million people, let’s consider our own moral selectivity. In March, 2001, the Taliban’s dynamiting of “the world’s two largest standing Buddhas – one of them 165ft high,” ignited more outrage than had any previous Taliban murders. Moreover, we ignore the 27 to 30 million people the United Nations estimates are enslaved today, with 18.4 million in India, 3.4 million in China, and 4.4 percent of the North Korean population, 1.1 million people.
It is best, therefore to learn from Hiram Powers, the sculptor born in 1805. Raised in Cincinnati, apprenticed as a clockmaker before learning sculpture, he spent much of his career sculpting striking busts and statues in Florence, to which he moved in 1837. He constantly spoke of returning to America but he was still in Florence when he died in 1873. Powers’ distance from his beloved country may have helped him see its sins more clearly.
No one should need to travel 4,672 miles to be the kind of loving critic healthy democracies need. A passion for justice is more important than wanderlust, just as a voting card is more important in pushing reform than a passport. Especially during this demoralizing election season, we all should find a medium, to make our equivalent of “The Greek Statue” forcing our fellow citizens to see some of the flaws we must fix in this 240-year-old experiment we nevertheless love called America.