HIRAM POWERS (1805–1873)
Marble, 24 in. high
Signed and inscribed (on the back): HIRAM POWERS Sculp.
First version executed about 1837–38; present marble executed 1841
RECORDED: cf. Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America (1968), p. 115 // cf. William H. Gerdts, American Neo-Classic Sculpture: The Marble Resurrection (1973), pp. 118, 119 fig. 131 illus. // cf. Richard P. Wunder, Hiram Powers: Vermont Sculptor (1974), p. 17 illus. // cf. Donald Martin Reynolds, Hiram Powers and His Ideal Sculpture (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, New York, 1975; Garland Pub., 1977), p. 1068 // cf. Richard P. Wunder, Hiram Powers: Vermont Sculptor, 1805–1873, (1991), vol. 2, pp. 153–55 no. 181 illus.
Ginevra was Powers’s first attempt at an ideal bust. The name is derived from Italy, a popular poem published in 1823 by the English poet Samuel Rogers (1763–1855), in which Ginevra, a fifteen-year-old Italian maiden mysteriously disappears on her wedding night. Her body is discovered in a chest fifty years later; the only positive identification being a ring on her hand that bore an inscription of her name. As it turns out, in a flight of fancy Ginevra had hidden herself in the chest, and was permanently entombed within it when a hidden spring lock fastened shut.
Powers began work on the model of the first version of the sculpture in plaster in 1837, shortly after his arrival in Florence, although at that time Powers hadn’t yet settled on a title. It wasn’t until he had finished translating the plaster model into marble that Powers chose the name Ginevra. Powers made the source of inspiration clear in a letter to one of his patrons:
I have just finished the model of another Ideal bust: it is of Rogers’ “Ginerva” [sic]. I will say nothing about its merits, myself. Mr. [Richard Henry] Wilde thinks the face too Italian, but the girl whom it is supposed to represent was an Italian (letter, Powers to John Smith Preston, August 31, 1839, as quoted in Wunder, vol. 1 , p. 120).
In the poem, the narrator describes Ginevra’s appearance as recorded in a portrait:
She sits, inclining forward as to speak,
Her lips half open, and her finger up,
As tho’ she said “Beware!” her vest of gold
Broidered with flowers, and clasped from head to foot,
An emerald-stone in every golden clasp;
And on her brow, fairer than alabaster,
A coronet of pearls (Samuel Rogers, Italy, a Poem , pp. 81–82).
Although Powers only loosely based Ginevra on Rogers’s poem, following an essentially Neo-Classical motif, he did incorporate the coronet of pearls as a wonderfully delicate and elegant element of the work, particularly with the filigree carved in low relief along its face.
The first marble replica of Ginevra, a 30-inch version now in the collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio, was finished in 1841. It was originally intended as a gift to Nicholas Longworth, Powers’s early patron. The face is inspired by a portrait bust Powers had executed previously in Florence of a young Boston woman named Anna Barker. A marble replica of Miss Barker’s bust is in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.. According to Powers biographer Richard Wunder:
Miss Barker’s features had given the sculptor inspiration and Ginevra became his excuse to idealize them. In this instance the comparison between the real and the ideal makes visually clear the differences between the two aims in Powers’ work, and at the same time points up his success as an artist. It was not long before his ideal busts transcended the portraits in popularity, for they possessed universal rather than individual appeal (ibid.).
Ginevra, then, is an important work in Powers’s oeuvre, a stunning early example of the type of idealized busts for which he is celebrated. Ginevra was followed soon after by Proserpine (modeled 1843), one of the sculptor’s most famous works, and ultimately by the iconic busts of The Greek Slave (1845–46).