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Hiram Powers, Greek Slave, 1843, plaster, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase in memory of Ralph Cross Johnson.

Today the work of Hiram Powers (1805–1873) is largely forgotten, but, in the second half of the nineteenth century, his Greek Slave was one of the world’s most celebrated, and controversial, sculptures.

The son of a Vermont farmer, Powers made his mark in Cincinnati crafting wax figures for a tableau of Dante’s Inferno. These, and other more conventional sculptures by the talented and affable young man, attracted a wealthy patron who urged him to trave ...