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.

Holding a Mirror to Society

Taken from ANTON OTTO FISCHER MARINE ARTIST; Katrina Sigsbee Fisher and Alex A. Hurst; Mill Hill Press; Nantucket; MA; © 1984; #159
Taken from ANTON OTTO FISCHER MARINE ARTIST; Katrina Sigsbee Fisher and Alex A. Hurst; Mill Hill Press; Nantucket; MA; © 1984; #159

In Crane’s story, “The Open Boat” the characters are kept from giving up in the face of an unrelenting and uncaring world by focusing their every thought on the work of survival. Similarly, Sary Jane spends her entire time just trying to survive. She constantly focus on her work making nankeen vests. This focus on her work keeps her from giving in to the unrelenting and uncaring environment of the ghetto. On the other hand, The Lady of Shalott is bedridden and unable to work. Being unable to lose herself in the repetition of mundane tasks, she uses her mirror to find beauty in the terrible struggle of day to day life in the ghetto.

Phelps’s story, “The Lady of Shalott” uses mirrors and other glass or glasslike objects to filter out the horrors of the naturalist world in which the characters live. Because The Lady of Shalott cannot move from her bed she is forced to view the world through the ten inches by six inches of mirror. Mirrors reflect a reverse image of the world, and The lady of Shalott’s mirror shows her a world of magic and beauty instead of the conditions in which she actually lives. And there is a sense that as long as she the beauty in the world she will not be affected by these terrible surroundings. In fact, she states that the reason that the people who live in the space below the sidewalk had a mirror they would not have succumbed to the inhuman heat of the summer. And The Lady of Shalott does not die until after her mirror gets destroyed.

But the mirror is not the only screen separating The Lady of Shalott from the reality of the ghetto. Her mirror gives her a view of a window which is the only way that she has to view the world in which she lives. Being shut up in this attack room since was five years old has given her the ability to understand the world from an elitist point of view hence the name The Lady of Shallott. The Lady of Shalott’s misunderstanding of the world mirrors the way that the rest of the population of the city can see the poverty of the ghettos without actually understanding how bad they really are. When the doctor comes to check on The Lady of Shalott, there is a sense that he has come down from his palace and can finally see the conditions in which the poor actually live. He is shocked by the conditions in which The Lady of Shalott lives and claims that she could be cured if only she was moved to better conditions and given treatment. But instead of actually taking care of her himself, he sends for the board of health and goes on vacation. The doctor like so many of the others that had seen glimpses of the life of the poor handed off his responsibility to help to someone else and their help was too little too late.

Twain’s Covert, Overt Discussion of Racism

Mark Twain

Twain brings up an interesting conundrum in “The United States of Lyncherdom.” When considering the rise in lynchings, Twain writes, “Is it because men think a lurid and terrible punishment a more forcible object lesson and a more effective deterrent than a sober and colorless hanging done privately in a jail would be?” (Twain 194). Twain describes a lynching as lurid and terrible and a state sanctioned hanging as sober and colorless. If Twain is using the dictionary definition of the word lynching, he is making a strange statement by describing a hanging in contradictory terms. However, he does make this contradictory statement after giving the example of the Pierce City lynching that made little sense because the man that they lynched would have hanged anyway if he had gone to trial (Twain 194). After this example, Twain’s contradictory statement about lynching can be read as an unstated indictment of the racism inherent in the justice system itself. Twain hints at the problem of racism when he writes, “… There are but few negroes in that region and they are without authority and without influence in overawing juries (Twain 194). He only goes as far as to say that the black people in the area have no influence on juries and does not explain why they had no influence.

Twain writes his contradictory lurid, colorless terrible, sober linchings in the form of a question. Asking the reader to decide whether or not a mob run lynching is a more forcible punishment than an inevitable legally run hanging also gives the reader the time to contemplate just how different the two types of execution are. Also, When Twain compares two forms of execution that are essentially the same, only differing in who is carrying them out, but describes them with opposite adjectives, he is giving the reader the chance to think about the differences between the people that comprise the mob of lynchers and the jury. A mob of lynchers would typically be comprised of the local adult males that are chomping at the bit to hang the man that the sheriff has in custody, and a jury would typically be comprised of the local adult males that are chomping at the bit to hang the man that the sheriff has in custody. Therefore, even though Twain did not have the word racism set into type, “The United States of Lyncherdom” is a serious writing directly discussing the problem of southern racism.