Nemerov talks American art, “The Greek Slave”

Professor Alexander Nemerov discussed the symbolism of the statue.
Professor Alexander Nemerov discussed the symbolism of the statue. Photo by Jordan Konell.

Standing on the first floor of the Yale University Art Gallery, the life-sized marble sculpture “The Greek Slave” may look beautiful. But American art scholar Alexander Nemerov GRD ’92 said the true intentions of the piece are instead to reveal the ugly reality of slavery in 19th-century America.

Nemerov, who is the Vincent Scully Professor of the History of Art, spoke yesterday at the Yale University Art Gallery in front of an audience of over 60 Yale students and local residents. His lecture, titled “When Did Art Become Meaningless?: Hiram Powers’ ‘Greek Slave,’” discussed how art can encapsulate an era and communicate a higher message through its physical form.

The focus of Nemerov’s talk was “The Greek Slave,” a marble piece by American Neoclassical sculptor Hiram Powers, which Nemerov described as the most popular American sculpture of the 19th century. The original piece was created in 1844, but Powers made six copies in the ensuing years when the piece proved itself to be greatly popular among American audiences. The Yale University Art Gallery holds an 1851 copy, which is featured on its first floor as part of the museum’s fall exhibition on American art, titled “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

“The work erases the unhappiness and cheapness of the world around it,” Nemerov said, pointing out the connotations of slavery imbued within the piece. The sculpture was inspired by the renowned Medici Venus and was seen as an anti-slavery symbol for abolitionists when it was unveiled, Nemerov said.

The sculpture features a figure of a Greek woman who is about to be sold into slavery by her Turkish captors. The work inspired an outpouring of prose and poetry and was a fundamental artistic spark for the anti-slavery movement in the 1840s, Nemerov added. Nemerov specifically highlighted Powers’ use of marble. He noted that marble was a symbol for Vermont, where Powers was born, and that it also represented softness and beauty.

Near the end of the talk, Nemerov compared “The Greek Slave” to Leonardo DaVinci’s “Mona Lisa.”

“Powers’ sculpture is the American “Mona Lisa” as it aspires to a sense of agelessness,” Nemerov said. Like the “Mona Lisa,” this sculpture’s “silence and beauty” is what makes it so profound, he added.

The lecture was followed by a question-and-answer session, during which Nemerov addressed the Turkish and Greek elements of the sculpture and whether Powers succeeded in communicating his anti-slavery convictions through his sculpture. Nemerov said that Powers was angered by the notion of slavery and this anger became his inspiration for “The Greek Slave.” The sculpture became an allegory for abolition and slavery in America, Nemerov added.

Five audience members interviewed said the talk was a highly informative lecture that combined elements of history, art and sociopolitical thought in explaining “The Greek Slave.”

“I felt the beauty and the otherness of the sculpture when I saw it the other day,” said New Haven resident Amy Hudnall. “[Professor Nemerov’s] thoughts really gave me a greater sense of understanding.”

Bryna Scheer, a Branford resident, said she appreciated Nemerov’s remarks about the symbolism of the sculpture. Rochelle Kaminsky, a fellow Branford resident, said she also was impressed by Nemerov’s explanation of the sculpture’s symbolic details.

“I would have walked right by the sculpture,” Kaminsky said. “But [Professor Nemerov’s] analysis made an enormous difference and really made me think.”

Professor Nemerov teaches and writes about American visual culture from the 18th to the mid-20th century, focusing on painting, sculpture, photography and film.

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