At age fifty-three, Hiram Powers was the best-known sculptor in the United States when he contracted to produce this full length, larger-than-life-size marble portrait of Benjamin Franklin for the U.S. Senate. His naturalistic portrait bust of President Andrew Jackson—painted in 1835, when Powers was a young man—had initiated a brilliant career.
Largely self-taught, Powers was particularly noted for his ability to create the illusion of skin in marble; his nude female figure, the Greek Slave of 1843—described by the artist as not flesh but “spirit that stands exposed”—was an international sensation that permitted his Victorian audience to be simultaneously uplifted and titillated.
Powers was constantly looking for lucrative and prestigious venues for his works, and no client was more desirable than the U.S. government, which was in the process of embellishing the Capitol at mid-century. In 1858, the government offered Powers
a commission of twenty thousand dollars to sculpt the Senate’s Benjamin Franklin and a full-length statue of Thomas Jefferson for the House.
Powers conveniently had an almost-completed plaster model of Franklin in his workshop in Florence, Italy, which he had begun about a decade earlier with the hope of using it for a
government commission. Like other first-generation American sculptors such as Horatio Greenough and Thomas Crawford, Powers had paradoxically emigrated abroad in order to further his career at home. Powers could have shipped the fine Tuscan Severazza marble that he preferred (and from which this sculpture is carved) to America for the same price he paid to ship it to his Florentine studio.
Although Powers did employ classically inspired devices in this work of Franklin (a tree as stabilizing prop, the philosophical pose of head resting on fist, and the bent and relaxed leg stance called contrapposto), Powers’s rendition of the most senior of the Founding Fathers is historically accurate in detail as well as highly naturalistic in style. The sculpture’s attire is based on actual items from Franklin’s mid-eighteenth-century wardrobe that the sculptor had imported from America. Powers captured the sense of weight and bulk of the heavy frock coat and the loose fit of the cotton hose, which crease around Franklin’s ankles. His tricorne hat, with its soft, smooth folds, contrasts with the intricate play of lines in Franklin’s middle-aged features.
Franklin was internationally known for his book,“Experiments and Observations on Electricity of 1751″, and the sculptor acknowledges this by having the standing Franklin rest his elbow on a tree trunk scored by lightning. Powers ingeniously employed a record of the electric charge to give a sense of Franklin’s intellectual prowess. The slight curve of that vertical mark balances the figure’s relaxed outer leg, and allows the eye to travel up through the curve of Franklin’s right arm to his bowed, pensive expression.
The statue of Franklin, probably crated in one of the sculptor’s personally designed cases in August of 1862, arrived at the Capitol that November, and was placed at the foot of the east staircase of the Senate wing, where it still stands.
Have a good week. -Mrs. S