American Neoclassical Sculptors & Sculpture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Who were some famous early American sculptors and what kind of work did they do? Why did many of them live in Italy? In this lesson, we'll explore American Neoclassic sculptors and their work.

What Is Neoclassicism?

Can archaeology spark an art movement? In the mid-1700s, European archaeologists unearthed sections of the ancient buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and made important archaeological discoveries in Athens. The finds renewed interest in Ancient Classical Greek and Roman culture and sparked an artistic style called Neoclassicism, which began in Europe in the 1750s and spread to the United States.

Neoclassicism was an art and architectural style that celebrated physical characteristics and the spirit of Ancient Greek and Roman art, with its focus on rational order and reason. To 18th-century Europeans, the human figure in Greek art, with its cool, unemotional appearance, was the ideal and a means of conveying a sense of timelessness and reason.

You can identify Neoclassical art by looking for several important elements. Figures in Neoclassic art are serious and stoic. What's happening in a scene may be emotional, but the figures don't show it. Rather, they're calm, ordered and serene. Figures are also often portrayed wearing the clothing of the Ancient Greeks and Romans instead of those from the contemporary era in which they were made.

Neoclassical Sculptors & Sculptures

By the early 1800s, as Neoclassicism as a style was at its height, American-born artists were beginning to make their mark in the art world. Three figures are usually considered the founders of American Neoclassical sculpture. Let's look at each of them.

Horatio Greenough

The earliest was the wealthy Boston native Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), who studied art from a young age. He graduated from Harvard University, and later spent time in Boston sculpting important local political figures, like President John Quincy Adams. But, in 1828, Greenough moved to Florence, Italy and remained there until 1851.

Greenough's most famous (or infamous) work was a colossal statue of George Washington, commissioned in 1832 in celebration of Washington's 100th birthday. The work was supposed to be displayed in the Capitol Rotunda, but it caused a furor when it was unveiled. Washington, larger than life, sat clothed not in what he would have worn during his lifetime, but bare-chested in a toga and sandals. Greenough had based his figure of Washington, calm and all knowing, on an ancient giant sculpture of the Olympian god Zeus. Yes, it depicted Neoclassic ideals, but it was too far ahead of its time and too much for its audience. It was never installed in the Capitol Building and for a while was displayed on the lawn (today, it's in a history museum in Washington, D.C.).

Horatio Greenough, sculpture of George Washington, on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol surrounded by schoolchildren, late 19th century.
Greenough giant sculpture of George Washington

Greenough received a lot of criticism for it, but when you look at it, you can clearly see why it's a good example of Neoclassicism. Washington looks ahead, emotionless, dressed only in a toga. He raises one hand to the sky. The sculpture doesn't portray Washington as a man, but as an ideal, a seated embodiment of rational leadership.

Hiram Powers

Hiram Powers (1805-1873) was the first American sculptor to become internationally recognized. Born in Vermont, Powers traveled with his family to Ohio as a boy, where he showed an interest in art. He apprenticed with several sculptors and then moved to Washington, D.C. There, he gained notice for his portrait work, including a bust of President Andrew Jackson. In 1837, Powers, like Greenough, moved to Florence, Italy where there was a thriving community of artists and, just as important, an abundant availability of marble because of nearby quarries. Powers never returned to the United States.

Powers is most famous for a marble sculpture called The Greek Slave (1841-1843). It caused a sensation when it premiered. It portrays a naked young woman in chains who casts her eyes to the ground. Powers said the work portrayed a Greek slave captured by the Ottoman Turks during a war between the two cultures in the 1820s. Drawing parallels not only to ancient art, but also to the issue of American slavery, the sculpture toured America and cemented Powers' fame. Critics loved it and hated it, and during the tour, men and women sometimes viewed it separately. For many audience members, it was the first time they'd seen a naked figure in art.

Hiram Powers, The Greek Slave, ca. 1843.
Powers The Greek Slave

Despite the salacious subject matter, the woman seems modest in view of her nakedness. She's calm, resigned to her fate, and, as one minister of the time commented ''clothed in her modesty.'' Again, you can see Neoclassic elements in her lack of emotion and in the use of an idealized, naked human form.

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