Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Acquires The Last of the Tribes by Celebrated American Sculptor Hiram Powers
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has acquired The Last of the Tribes (1867-74), a marble sculpture by American artist Hiram Powers. The 66-inch sculpture, which depicts the partially nude figure of an American Indian woman, was purchased with funds provided by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Fund. It is on view as of January, 2001 in the Kilroy Gallery of the Audrey Jones Beck Building, 360I Main St.
"Hiram Powers was the first American sculptor to gain international fame," Peter C. Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, said. "As the museum strengthens its collection of sculpture from all centuries, this dramatic work significantly adds to the museum's collection of nineteenth-century American sculpture. It is the first work by Powers, the most celebrated American sculptor of the nineteenth century, to enter the museum's collection." (left: Hiram Powers, The Last of the Tribes, 1867-1874, marble, with original base, 66 inches tall, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)
In American sculpture, Powers helped pioneer the neoclassical style, an international phenomenon that held special meaning in a country that prided itself on the classical roots of its democracy. The sculpture combines Powers's typical graceful lines and calm, noble bearing of its subject, with dramatic movement, a departure in his art. The subject of the sculpture is dressed in a detailed skirt tailored by Powers's imagination. Decorated with diamond patterning and tassels, the intricately cut skirt seems to sway convincingly as the figure runs. Powers saw The Last of the Tribes as the sculptural equivalent of James Fenimore Cooper's literary classic, The Last of the Mohicans. Like Cooper, Powers helped to promote the popular notion of the time that the American Indian was a noble figure that co-existed harmoniously in an Eden-like American wilderness but was doomed to extinction because of his incompatibility with encroaching Western civilization. The running figure personifies the American Indian fleeing civilization, a current in American culture at the time.
"Hiram Powers put American sculpture on the map," said Emily Ballew Neff, MFAH curator of American painting and sculpture. "In The Last of the Tribes, Powers merges the graceful, undulating lines of an international neoclassical style with American subject matter. The figure is both thoughtful and active, opposing forces that hint at the complexity of the American Indian's fate in nineteenth-century American history."
The Last of the Tribes was the last full-length ideal sculpture created by Powers before his death in I873. The sculpture is the first of two versions. The other, at the National Museum of American Art, was carved after the artist's death. In the version acquired by the MFAH, Powers oversaw the carving of the head and neck before he died. As was the custom in the nineteenth-century sculptor's studio, the sculptor's apprentices did the carving. In this case, Remigio Peschi, Powers's principal workman for over three decades, did the work.
Powers was born in Woodstock, Vermont in 1805. He moved to Ohio in I8I8, where he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Cincinnati. He first worked molding wax effigies for the Western Museum in Cincinnati, then moved to Washington, D.C., where he won instant acclaim for his marble sculpture bust of Andrew Jackson. In 1837, he moved to Florence, Italy, where he lived and maintained a studio for more than 30 years. He is best known for his sculpture Greek Slave (1844) the most famous nude in American art, and the first American sculpture to earn international fame.
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