Abstracted by Noah Duell
Hiram Powers’ The Greek Slave is the most preeminent example of antebellum neoclassical sculpture. Whereas other scholars have noted the aesthetic qualities of the statue, Linda Hyman researched many poems and other literary works in order to find out why the work was such a phenomenon in the antebellum United States. Hyman posits that many men of the era were drawn to its beauty, aroused by its state of submission, and subdued by the fantasies elicited by what they saw as an erotic sex symbol. Looking through a 1840s and 50s Victorian Christian lens, the erotic gaze was permitted and defended by much of the male audience. This, permission, Hyman noted, is the difference between covert and overt culture, where the viewers “overtly” look upon it as art, but in reality have ulterior “covert” motives. Women were also attracted to it, yet in an empathetic rather than sexual way. They identified with the statue, most notably in a Freudian narcissistic manner, Hyman notes. Based upon several poems, the chains that subdued the subject were as tight, emotionally, as those that held Victorian women down. In the same way the statue was being commodified as a submissive femininity, so too were the women who looked upon it. In the highly tense political environment, the statue served as a rallying icon and a call to arms for the Abolitionist movement in the northern United States. As Hyman references, the artwork itself brought upon fiery anti-slavery rhetoric, with which came vociferous opposition in the Southern United States. Those who were pro-slavery deemed the Abolitionist’s protests as pure hypocrisy, that they made complaints only in response to the statue’s Caucasian Christianity. The broad appeal of Hiram Power’s The Greek Slave is evident in the numerous ways it was interpreted. Using the literary works and the words of a congressman, a literary critic, and everyone in between, Hyman exhibits several appeals the statue possessed and the connotations of the work as it relates to factions within antebellum American society.