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The Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago Purchase Fund
How can you tell that this is not a portrait of a specific woman but rather a personification of the United States? Her highly polished marble skin, her hairstyle, and the details of her face are all idealized. Other aspects serve as important symbols, such as her crown with thirteen stars, which represent the original states. The stars reminded viewers of the country’s birth and emphasized unity between the North and South in the tense years prior to the Civil War. Before this bust was made, the artist had created a full-length statue of America to memorialize the 1848 revolutions in Europe and celebrate the democratic values of the United States government. Then, between 1850 and 1873, he made twenty eight versions of just the bust of America—the patriotic subject matter and classically idealized features made it very popular with clients during the Civil War era. All of the versions included symbols of the American ideal of democracy, such as the laurel wreath, an indication of liberty and triumph dating back to Greco-Roman culture. Interestingly, as the years passed, Powers (who lived in Italy from 1837 until his death) moved from taking a rather neutral position on slavery to fully opposing it, leading him to add broken chains under the feet of the full-length figure as a protest against the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This act allowed the two territories to decide slavery issues by popular sovereignty. Like Powers, artists often express their own political beliefs, as well as those of their audience, in the artworks they make.
1. What other symbols of the United States can you think of? If you were to design a sculpture of America today, what symbols would you include and why?
2. Why do you think the sculptor idealized this personification? Do some research on classicism to find out why this style was so desirable to audiences in 19th-century America.
Barter, Judith A. et al. American Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago: From Colonial Times to World War I. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1998.
Foner, Eric. “The Civil War and the Story of American Freedom.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 27, no. 1 (2001): 8-25 (plate 1, p. 13).
Fryd, Vivien Green. “Hiram Powers' 'America': ‘Triumphant as Liberty and in Unity,'” American Art Journal 18, no. 2 (1986): 66.
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