Artwork Details

Hiram Powers


1848 – 1849
Marble on original socle (base)
25 x 19 x 11 inches
Level 3, Gallery 2
Accession Number
Museum Purchase with funds provided by the Wege Fund, the Drake Quinn Family Foundation, and general accessions funds
Image Copyright
Public Domain

About the Artwork

Hiram Powers was a prominent American sculptor who achieved recognition in the U.S. and Europe for developing a blend of classical idealism, physical intensity, and appealing subject matter. This bust of Proserpine in fact, was the most replicated work by a nineteenth-century American sculptor. 

After Powers moved from the U.S. to Italy in 1837, he trained as a sculptor and took advantage of the skilled workmen and the pure, white Italian marble. In 1842, he created his first idealized marble nude, Eve Tempted. The next year he made The Greek Slave, a live-size female nude that was seen by over 100,00 Americans during a national tour. Nudity in publicly-displayed art was then mostly unacceptable to Americans, but Power’s Biblical and mythological subjects eased the public’s concerns with nudes. 

In this life-size nude bust from 1848 – 49, the Roman goddess Proserpine emerges from a border of acanthus leaves, with a crown of braided wheat visible in her hair. The sparkling purity of the marble lent itself to spiritual idealism, while Powers’ skillful simulation of skin texture conjured a heightened physical reality. Powers’ Neoclassical style, so popular at the time, was inspired by the art and culture of ancient Rome and Greece and adhered to their emphases on order, symmetry, and simplicity of form. 

In Roman mythology, Proserpine was the daughter of Jupiter and Ceres. Proserpine was carried off to the underworld by Pluto, who forced her to marry him and rule alongside him in Hades. She could only return to the earth’s surface for a short time each year, and her visit marked the advent of spring. The wheat in Proserpines hair alludes to her mother, Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. The acanthus leaves that ring her torso symbolize Proserpine’s immortality through her ability to escape the underworld each year and return to the world of the living.