Powers’ Classical Realism and Wolfe’s Anti-ideal Ideal

The anonymous article, “The Process of Sculpture” details the typical artistic process for creating a sculpture in the 19th century and how the process was altered when Hiram Powers created his sculpture “The Greek Slave.” The sculptural process begins with the creation of an iron frame for support. On top of the frame, the artist applies clay until the sculpture is nearly complete. Then, the artist hires models from whom he or she derives the minute details of the sculpture. Finally, the artist directs the work of laborers to recreate his work of art in marble. However, Hiram Powers deviates from typical procedures by choosing a slave as his subject and by using a single model to sit for his sculpture. Powers’ slave is contrasted against Zeuxis’ picture of Hellen of Troy. And whereas Zeuxis had all of the beautiful women of Greece to blend together into the ideal Helen, Powers only used one model to create his sculpture (The Process of Sculpture 317-318.) The Realism in Power’s approach and the contrast between realist and classical approaches to sculpture take center stage in the discussion of Hugh Wolfe’s statue in Life in the Iron Mills; yet, Davis’s story shows that art, like life, defies simple categorization.

According to the article, “The Process of Sculpture,” true artistry was only attainable by those who went through several time consuming preparatory steps and were blessed with “high and refined mental gifts” (The Process of Sculpture 317-318.) And the actual carving of the marble was done by laborers. The article states, “The processes whereby it was now to be transferred to marble… are purely mechanical, and are performed, under the artist’s directions, by uninspired hands” (The Process of Sculpture 318.) However, Wolfe brings into question the validity of these ideas.

Both Powers and Wolf bucked the classical trend by creating sculptural works that used subjects that fit well within the Realist Ideal. The subject of Powers’ sculpture The Greek Slave, although modeled from classical Greece, is a slave, and the focus on the lower classes is one of the hallmarks of Realism. However, Powers departs from realist ideals in his choice of model. He found one model that satisfied almost every ideal standard of beauty (The Process of Sculpture 318.) And the reference to Zeuxis of ancient Greece in the article adds the feeling that Powers’ standard of ideal beauty did not stray far from that of the ancient Greeks.

Wolfe, on the other hand, maintains the standard of realism not only in the selection of a female worker as the subject of his sculpture, but also in the rugged standard of beauty in which he renders the sculpture. The dichotomy of ruggedness and beauty are exemplified when Doctor May admires the beauty in the sweep of muscles in the arm but says, “A working woman,—the very type of her class,” and Mitchel replies, “God forbid” (Rebecca Harding Davis 53.) To add on to the idea that Wolfe has created an object defies easy categorization as art (at least within the classical style of thinking), the narrator, describing the statue, says, “There is not a line of beauty or grace in it” (Rebecca Harding Davis 53.) With this thought even the narrator seems to be debating with him or herself the particular artistic merits of Wolfe’s sculpture. Therefore, Powers’ proclivity for minor deviations from classical style would not be enough let him enjoy Wolfe’s sculptural work. Powers would likely share Mitchel and Doctor May’s sentiment if he were confronted with Wolfe’s sculpture. But the mere fact that Mitch, Doctor May, and Kirby spend so much time discussing the sculpture proves its worth as an important work of art.

In the end, Wolfe’s sculpture is shown to have no real value other than its ability to bring up the question of how we define and value art without giving any definitive answers, but the contrast between classical and Realist styles in both “The Process of Sculpture” and Life in the Iron Mills shows that the process of sculpture is whatever process one chooses. Wolfe has chosen to create his sculpture without the aid of a master artist, and presumably, without the aid of early planning stages. The narrator never gives a definitive statement as to whether or not Wolfe has done any study sketches, carvings in miniature, or full size sculptures in clay prior to commencing work on the statue. However, Kirby does claim that Wolfe could have used any of his shirtless coworkers as inspiration and anatomical study (Davis 53.) While Wolfe skips many of the classical steps in the sculptural process, if Kirby’s assumption is correct, Wolfe has the realist equivalent to Zeuxis’ pick of all the women of Greece in his hundreds of coworkers, and by proxy Wolfe’s sculpture is the Hellen of the working class, the Realist ideal, the anti-ideal ideal.

Work Cited

Anonymous. “The Process of Sculpture.” Life in the Iron Mills. Ed. Cecelia Tichi. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 317-318. Print.

Davis, Rebecca Harding. Life in the Iron Mills. Ed. Cecelia Tichi. Boston: Bedford, 1998. Print.

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