This page is essentially the same as a conference paper I wrote back in the mid '70's. Unfortunately, since then a number of feminists have discovered the statue and have produced similar, though shallower. essays with all the usual cliches and claptrap. Not that mine is terribly profound, but we are talking about feminists here, not real scholars. One even managed to bring in the E.B. Browning poem I discussed, but since Browning obviously liked that statue, the author had to explain how at a deeper level the poem really doesn't like it, and knows that it is merely patriarchal oppression, so E.B. is really off the hook, and is even one of the good guys, though she didn't know it, except of course that she did really deep down, sort of. I wonder if academia has ever sunk to quite this level before.
In 1851, England held a huge industrial world's fair, which came to be called the "Great Crystal Palace Exposition" in honor of the huge structure of glass and iron which housed it. America, with typical yankee exuberance and optimism, reserved a large area, which it ended up filling only meagerly. A last minute addition, however, saved the day for America--Hiram Powers' statue, "The Greek Slave," which became the sensation of the fair. The revolving turntable on which the figure stood helped as well, though today we might think this a rather tacky addition. The addition was especially fortuitous in that America, for all its wealth and technical ingenuity, had very little standing in the arts.
Like much Victorian art, the statue tells a story. Nude statues were common enough, but this one was different in wearing handcuffs--not the very stylized sort one sees in most allegorical paintings, but cuffs of a very particular and distinct design with double chains. There is also the clothing--not simply dropped, but obviously taken off garment by garment and placed on the stump beside her. The clothing is also not stylized, not some vague mass of fabric, but very particularized garments including a cross on a chain, and a hat of the sort worn by women in the balkans. The figure has the generality of Canova and other 19th century sculptors, and thus is typical of allegorical figures, but the chains and the clothing suggest a real time and place.
Much more of the story is told by the name of the statue--"The Greek Slave." Throughout much of the nineteenth century Greece was involved in a war of independance against the Turks, and had widespread popular sympathy in the West, though the governments did little to help, fearing that any loss by Turkey would be a gain for Russia. Delacroix had produced paintings about the heroics and sufferings of the Greeks, and Lord Byron, the most admired poet in Europe, had joined the Greeks in their struggle. The girl in handcuffs has no doubt been taken captive as part of a Turkish reprisal. Here the title becomes significant, for literally speaking, she is not a slave, Turkish or otherwise, but a captive. The title extends her story into the future. Of course there are various sorts of slaves for various purposes, but the fact that she is stripped or, more precisely, has been made to strip, suggests that the interest in her is sexual. Of course the Victorian viewer's interest is largely sexual as well; it was a very repressive era. For the male, there were prostitutes, of course, but but those tended to be coarse and from the lowest class. Mistresses were expensive, and involved a multitude of complications and commitments. The opposite sex was largely unacessible, and not even very visible beneath bulky garments that hid even the body's outline. The title of the statue and the fact that she has apparently taken off her own clothes tell the viewer that she is not going to be a martyr, a concept with moral uplift, but depressing in terms of the sexual imagination. It is symbolic, also, that she has taken off the chain and cross and laid it aside instead of clutching it and gazing heavenward. If that were the case, this would be a martyr story. One of the several poems written about this figure mentions those more preferable alternatives, the "cloister or the grave," but, in fact, the viewer does not really want her in either place. There is a subgroup in both sexes who feel that sex is dirty, and so dirt is sexy. Most men, however, want a nice girl. They would also like a certain amount of sexual intimacy without the almost unsurmoutable barriers that the nineteenth and early twentieth century erected against just such a possibility. In theory, to be available was to be "not nice," and that tended to be the case in fact as well as in theory. Matters were not so great for women either--they not only had to set limits, but were expected to repress any sexual feelings. In the case of the Greek Slave, all these barriers have been eliminated. It is no wonder that the statue exerted so great an appeal to both sexes. (Over half of the poems about the statue that I have found were written by women.)
The statue is revealing in another way. Stand back a little from the picture and look at the clothing-draped stump--it is an almost indecently literal image of a penis. The fact that it is topped with a hat adds a piece of sexual symbolism we don't need Freud to explain. (For an example, though, see Grimm's "The Goose Girl," in which the girl teases the small boy by taking down her long golden hair, then frustrates his attempt to grab her hair by calling up the wind to blow his hat away--hair and hat symbolism both.) The stump-penis is not only rubbing against her hip at just about vaginal level, but she is resting her hand on it as well. Of course something of the sort is necessary, since resting the weight of the statue on the small ankles alone would make it both fragile and topheavy, but Powers has really put this necessity to use. The chains also cross her body at a strategic level.
This contemporary picture of the statue gives some sense of its popularity. It apparently also shows its impact on the artist, for the figure was actually only life-size, but it appears much larger here. Looking at the absurd specatacle of all these overdressed men, and haystack-like women, our first impulse is to sympathize with them rather than with the Greek maiden. They seem at least as much like prisoners as she does.
The repression and prudery of the 19th century required some outlet--after all, people are people. It was a great century for pornography, but art supplied a more respectable outlet. Nudity was traditional for much in the classical tradition, though Leda getting it on with the swan was a little too bizarre for people with only the normal range of kinks, and besides, all that was long ago, far away, and fictional besides. A sexier alternative was paintings dealing with Turkey and the Near East. That was contemporary, close at hand, and more or less real. Some works, like several of Delacroix's and Powers' statue dealt with the Greek war of independence. Many dealt with harem and bath scenes, and some with the slave market. Thus, in the minds of viewers, the story of Powers' Greek slave extends beyone the situation we find her in. Here is a painting by Giraud that comes in a bit later in the story:
This scene is by no means the end of the story, a story which we need to finish before getting back to Powers' statue. However, there are several pictures on this page already. It still loads relatively quickly, and wanting to keep it that way, I have moved the rest of this discussion and the relevant pictures to a second page. To reach it: