(See the commentary on Powers' sculpture on the Victorian Web)
They say Ideal Beauty cannot enter The house of anguish. On the threshold stands An alien image with enshackled hands, Called the Greek Slave! as if the artist meant her (That passionless perfection which he lent her Shadowed not darkened where the sill expands) To so confront manís crimes in different lands With manís ideal sense. Pierce to the center, Artís fiery finger! and break up ere long The serfdom of this world! appeal, fair stone, From Godís pure heights of beauty against manís wrong! Catch up in the divine face, not alone East griefs but west, and strike and shame the strong, By thunders of white silence, overthrown.
Hiram Powerís sculpture "The Greek Slave" caused much controversy during the Great Exhibition of 1851. It remains controversial today; in a 1999 article in the Yale Daily News, Grace Farrell argues that the nude statue's "submissively bowed head not only made the act of gazing at an erotically beautiful, nude woman socially acceptable, but it invested female sexuality with a dramatically emotional quotient of subservience."
Chains cover the female genitals, enabling the sculptor to dispense with drapery and present a fully nude woman while still maintaining a modicum of decorum. But because the chains are the thematic focal point of the sculpture, the eye is drawn to them, and thence to the genitals. The Greek Slave's sexuality is at the heart of the sculptural narrative as, indeed, chains over female genitals is at the heart of the nineteenth century's patriarchal narrative (Farrell, "Sexism, Yale and Maple Cottage," Yale Daily News April 14, 1999. URL: http://yaledailynews.com/article.asp?AID=1418).
Elizabeth Barrett Browningís sonnet, which at first seems a lovely complement to Powers' figure, actually criticizes his work. She seems to reach out across time and space and remind us that what one may view as an ideal of an age may instead represent injustice.
Hypermedia edition by Aly Johns-Robinson and Glenn Everett, April 2001.
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