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   Chapter 29 HIRAM POWERS.

Great Fortunes, and How They Were Made By James Dabney McCabe Characters: 31701

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


HIRAM POWERS was born in Woodstock, Vermont, on the 29th of July, 1805. He was the eighth in a family of nine children, and was the son of a farmer who found it hard to provide his little household with the necessaries of life. He grew up as most New England boys do, sound and vigorous in health, passing the winters in attendance upon the district schools, and the summers in working on the farm. "The only distinctive trait exhibited by the child was mechanical ingenuity; he excelled in caricature, was an adept in constructiveness, having made countless wagons, windmills, and weapons for his comrades, attaining the height of juvenile reputation as the inventor of what he called a 'patent fuse.'"

The Powers family lived just over the river, opposite the village, and all joined heartily in the effort to keep the wolf from the doors. Mr. Powers, Sen., was induced to become security for one of his friends, and, as frequently happens, lost all he had in consequence. Following close upon this disaster came a dreadful famine in the State, caused by an almost total failure of the crops. "I recollect," says Mr. Powers, "we cut down the trees, and fed our few cows on the browse. We lived so long wholly on milk and potatoes, that we got almost to loathe them. There were seven of us children, five at home, and it was hard work to feed us."

One of the sons had managed to secure an education at Dartmouth College, and had removed to Cincinnati, where he was at this time editing a newspaper. Thither his father, discouraged by the famine, determined to follow him. Accordingly, placing his household goods and his family in three wagons, and being joined by another family, he set out on the long journey to the West. This was in 1819, when young Hiram was fourteen years old. It cost him a sharp struggle to leave his old home, and as they climbed the hills beyond Woodstock he lingered behind with his mother to take a last view of the place. They crossed the State, and passing through western New York came to the vicinity of Niagara Falls. They were near enough to the great cataract to hear its solemn roar sounding high above the silent woods. The boy was eager to visit it, but the distance was too great to the falls, and he was forced to relinquish this pleasure. Continuing their journey westward, they reached the Ohio River, down which stream they floated on a flatboat until they came to Cincinnati, then a city of fourteen thousand inhabitants.

Through the assistance of his eldest son, the editor, Mr. Powers was enabled to secure a farm not far from Cincinnati, and removing his family to it, began the task of clearing and cultivating it. Unfortunately for the new-comers, the farm was located on the edge of a pestilential marsh, the poisonous exhalations of which soon brought the whole family down with the ague. Mr. Powers the elder died from this disease, and Hiram was ill and disabled from it for a whole year. The family was broken up and scattered, and our hero, incapable of performing hard work so soon after his sickness, obtained a place in a produce store in Cincinnati, his duty being to watch the principal road by which the farmers' wagons, laden with grain and corn whisky, came into the city, and to inform the men in charge of them that they could obtain better prices for their produce from his employers than from any other merchants in the city. It was also a part of his duty to help to roll the barrels from the wagons to the store. He made a very good "drummer," and gave satisfaction to his employers, but as the concern soon broke up, he was again without employment.

His brother, the editor, now came to his assistance, and made a bargain with the landlord of a hotel in the city to establish a reading-room at his hotel. The landlord was to provide the room and obtain a few paying subscribers; the editor was to stock it with his exchange newspapers, and Hiram was to be put in charge of it and receive what could be made by it. The reading-room was established, but as the landlord failed to comply with his agreement, Powers was forced to abandon the undertaking.

POWERS' DISTRUST OF THE HUNTERS.

"About that time," said he, in relating his early life to the Rev. Dr. Bellows, some years ago, "looking around anxiously for the means of living, I fell in with a worthy man, a clock-maker and organ-builder, who was willing to employ me to collect bad debts in the country. He put me on an old horse which had one very bad fault. He was afflicted with what the Western people called the 'swaleys,' and could not go downhill. I frequently had to dismount and back him down, as the only way of getting along. The road often lay through forests and clearings, in mire, and among the roots of the beeches, with which my poor beast was constantly struggling. I would sometimes emerge from a dark wood, five miles through, perhaps, and find myself near a clearing where the farmer's house I was seeking lay, half a mile off the road. Picking up a stout club to defend myself against the inevitable dog, which, in the absence of men-folks, guarded every log-house, I plodded across the plowed field, soon to be met by the ferocious beast, who, not seeing a stranger more than once a month, was always furious and dangerous. Out would come, at length, the poor woman, too curious to see who it was that broke up her monotonous solitude, to call off the dog, who generally grew fiercer as he felt his backer near him, and it was commonly with a feeling as of a bare escape of my life that I finally got into the house. It was sad enough, too, often to find sickness and death in those fever-stricken abodes-a wan mother nursing one dying child, with perhaps another dead in the house. My business, too, was not the most welcome. I came to dun a delinquent debtor, who had perhaps been inveigled by some peddler of our goods into an imprudent purchase, for a payment which it was inconvenient or impossible to make. There, in the corner, hung the wooden clock, the payment for which I was after, ticking off the last minutes of the sick child-the only ornament of the poor cabin. It was very painful to urge my business under such circumstances. However, I succeeded, by kindness, in getting more money than I expected from our debtors, who would always pay when they could. I recollect, one night, almost bewailing my success. I had reached the entrance of a forest, at least nine miles through, and finding a little tavern there, concluded it was prudent to put up and wait till morning. There were two rough-looking fellows around, hunters, with rifles in their hands, whose appearance did not please me, and I fancied they looked at each other significantly when the landlord took off my saddle-bags and weighted them, feeling the hundred dollars of silver I had collected. I was put into the attic, reached by a ladder, and, barricading the trap-door as well as I could, went to sleep with one eye open. Nothing, however, occurred, and in the morning I found my wild-looking men up as early as I, and was not a little disturbed when they proposed to keep me company across the forest. Afraid to show any suspicion, I consented, and then went and looked at the little flint-pistol I carried, formidable only to sparrows, but which was my only defense.

"About two miles into the wood, my fierce-looking friends, after some exchange of understanding as to their respective ways and meeting-point, started off on different sides of the road in search of game, as they said, but, as I feared, with the purpose of robbing and perhaps murdering me at some darker spot in the forest. I had gone perhaps two miles farther, when I heard the breaking of a twig, and, looking on one side, saw a hand signaling me to stop. Presently an eye came out behind the tree, and then an arm, and I verily thought my hour had come. But, keeping straight on, I perceived, almost instantly, to my great relief, two fine deer, who appeared not at all disturbed by a man on horseback, though ready enough to fly from a gun, and began to suspect that the robber I was dreading was, after all, only a hunter in the honest pursuit of his living. The crack of the rifle soon proved that the deer, and not my saddle-bags, were the game aimed at, and I found my imagination had for twelve hours been converting very harmless huntsmen into highwaymen of a most malicious aspect."

His employer was so well pleased with the success of his young collector that he offered to give him a place in the factory, saying there would always be plenty of rough work at which an inexperienced hand could employ himself. "I could refuse no proposition that promised me bread and clothes," said he, "for I was often walking the streets hungry, with my arms pressed close to my sides to conceal the holes in my coat sleeves." His first task was to thin down with a file some brass plates which were to be used as parts of the stops of an organ. Powers was expected to do merely the rough work, after which the plates were to pass into the hands of the regular finisher. His employer, knowing that the task was one which would require time, told him he would look in in a few days, and see how he had succeeded. The young man's mechanical talent, on which he had prided himself when a boy in Vermont, now did him good service, and he applied himself to his task with skill and determination. When his employer asked for the plates, he was astonished to find that Powers had not only done the rough work, but had finished them much better than the regular finisher had ever done, and this merely by his greater nicety of eye and his undaunted energy. He had blistered his hands terribly, but had done his work well. His employer was delighted, and, finding him so valuable an assistant, soon gave him the superintendence of all his machinery, and took him to live in his own family.

As has been stated, his employer's business was the manufacture of organs and clocks. Powers displayed great skill in the management of the mechanical department of the business, and this, added to the favor shown him by the "boss," drew upon him the jealousy of the other workmen. There hung in the shop at this time an old silver bull's-eye watch, a good time-piece, but very clumsy and ungainly in appearance. Powers was anxious to become its owner. Being too poor to buy it, he hit upon the following expedient for obtaining it. He had carefully studied the machine used in the shop for cutting out wooden clock wheels, and had suggested to his employer several improvements in it. The workmen, however, had ridiculed his suggestions, and had denounced as the most barefaced presumption his belief that he could improve a machine which had come all the way from Connecticut, where, they said, people were supposed to know something about clocks. Nevertheless, he maintained his opinions, and told his employer that if he would give him the silver watch, he would invent a much better machine. His offer was accepted, and in ten days he produced a machine, not only much simpler than the old one, but capable of performing twice as much and better work. The workmen promptly acknowledged his success, and his employer gave him the watch. "The old watch," said he, a few years ago, "has ticked all my children into existence, and three of them out of this world. It still hangs at the head of my bed."

About this time, in a chance visit to the Museum in Cincinnati, he saw a plaster cast of Houdon's "Washington." It was the first bust he had ever seen, and he says it moved him strangely. He had an intense desire to know how it was done, and a vague consciousness that he could do work of the same kind if he could find an instructor. The instructor he soon found in a German living in the city, who made plaster casts and busts, and from him he learned the secret of the art. He proved an apt pupil, and surprised his teacher by his proficiency. His first effort at modeling from life was the bust of a little daughter of Mr. John P. Foote. She sat to him during the hours he could spare from his regular work. His model was made of beeswax, as he was afraid that clay would freeze or stiffen. His success encouraged him very greatly. "I found I had a correct eye," said he, "and a hand which steadily improved in its obedience to my eye. I saw the likeness, and knew it depended on the features, and that, if I could copy the features exactly, the likeness would follow just as surely as the blood follows the knife. I found early that all the talk about catching the expression was mere twaddle; the expression would take care of itself if I copied the features exactly."

The true principles of his art seemed to come to him naturally, and having the genius to comprehend them so readily, he had the courage to hold on to them often in the face of adverse criticism. While conscious of having a perfectly correct eye, however, he did not scorn the humbler method of obtaining exactness by mathematical measurement. The following incident, which he related to Dr. Bellows, illustrates this:

"One of the first busts I ever made was of an artist, a Frenchman, who came over with Mrs. Trollope. He proposed to paint my picture, while I was to make his bust. He was older, and considered himself much my superior, and, indeed, undertook to be my instructor. I was to begin. His first canon was that I was to use no measurements, and he quoted Michael Angelo's saying-'A sculptor should carry his compasses in his eyes, not in his fingers,' I humbly submitted to his authority, and finished the bust without a single measurement. He was very triumphant at what he called the success of his method. I begged permission of him, now that the bust was completed, to verify my work by the dividers. He graciously consented, and I was pleased to find how nearly I had hit the mark. A few imperfections, however, appeared, and these, in spite of his objections, I corrected without his knowledge, for I was determined to have the bust as near right as I could make it. It had taken me, however, at least five times as long to measure the distances with my eyes as it would have done to measure them with the calipers, and I saw no advantage in the longer and more painful effort. The measurements are mere preparations for the artist's true work, and are, like the surveyor's lines, preparatory to the architect's labor. When my subject, in his turn, undertook my portrait, he was true to his own principles, and finished it without measurements. I then, though with some horror at my temerity, asked permission to verify his work with the dividers, and found at the first stroke a difference of at least half an inch in the distance between the eyes. He looked very much mortified, but said that it was done to 'give the effect.' I have had no misgivings since about the economy and wisdom of using the calipers freely. To be useful, they must be applied with the greatest precision-so small are the differences upon which all the infinite variety in human countenances depends. With the aid of my careful measurements, I do in one day what it would cost me a week or two's work to accomplish without, and I am then able to give my exclusive attention to the modeling."

He did not regularly devote himself to his art, however, but remained in the employment of the organ and clock maker for some time longer, giving his leisure hours to constant practice. When he was about twenty-three years old, a Frenchman named Herview opened in Cincinnati a museum of natural history and wax figures. The latter had been very much broken and disfigured in transportation, and their owner, in despair, begged Powers to undertake the task of restoring them. The figures were representations of distinguished men and women, and as Powers readily

saw that it would be impossible to repair them without having proper likenesses as his guides, he proposed to the Frenchman to make an entirely new composition of the old materials, and one which should attract attention by its oddity. This was agreed to, and the result was a hideous and ungainly figure, which Powers proposed should be called the "King of the Cannibal Islands," but to his amazement the Frenchman advertised it as the embalmed body of a South Sea man-eater, "secured at immense expense." Powers declared to his employer that the audience would discover the cheat and tear down the museum; but the "man-eater" drew immense crowds, and was regarded as the most wonderful natural curiosity ever seen in the West. The Frenchman was so well pleased with it that he employed the artist permanently as inventor, wax-figure maker, and general mechanical contriver in the museum.

Powers remained in the Frenchman's employ for seven years, hoping all the while to earn money enough to devote himself entirely to art, which had now become his great ambition. His experience was not a pleasant one. Some of it was so singular, not to say ludicrous, that he shall relate one portion of it in his own language:

"One of the first things I undertook, in company with Herview, was a representation of the infernal regions after Dante's description. Behind a grating I made certain dark grottoes, full of stalactites and stalagmites, with shadowy ghosts and pitchforked figures, all calculated to work on the easily-excited imaginations of a Western audience, as the West then was. I found it very popular and attractive, but occasionally some countryman would suggest to his fellow spectator that a little motion in the figures would add much to the reality of the show. After much reflection I concluded to go in among the figures dressed like the Evil One, in a dark robe, with a death's-head and cross-bones wrought upon it, and with a lobster's claw for a nose. I had bought and fixed up an old electrical machine, and connected it with a wire, so that, from a wand in my hand, I could discharge quite a serious shock upon any body venturing too near the grating. The plan worked admirably, and excited great interest; but I found acting the part of wax-figure two hours every evening in the cold no sinecure, and was put to my wits to devise a figure that could be moved by strings, and which would fill my place. I succeeded so well that it ended in my inventing a whole series of automata, for which the old wax-figures furnished the materials, in part, and which became so popular and so rewarding, that I was kept seven years at the business, my employer promising me, from time to time, an interest in the business, which he quite forgot to fulfill. When, at last, I found out the vanity of my expectations, I left him. He knew I kept no accounts, but he did not know that I reported all the money he gave me to my wife, who did keep our accounts. He tried to cheat me, but I was able to baffle him through her prudence and method. For I had married in this interval, and had a wife and children to support."

Powers was now thirty years old, and had acquired considerable reputation in Cincinnati as an artist. His abilities coming to the notice of Mr. Nicholas Longworth, of that city, that good genius of young men of talent called on him and offered to buy out the museum and establish him in the business. The offer was declined with thanks. Mr. Longworth then proposed to send him to Italy to study his profession, but this, too, being declined, Mr. Longworth urged him to go to Washington and try his fortune with the public men of the country. To this Powers consented, and, aided by his generous friend, he repaired to the national capital in 1835, and spent two years there. During this period he modeled busts of Andrew Jackson, J.Q. Adams, Calhoun, Chief Justice Marshall, Woodbury, Van Buren, and others. Being unable to secure a model of Webster in Washington, the statesman invited him to go with him to Marshfield for that purpose. Powers accepted the invitation, and declares that he looks back upon his sojourn there as one of the most delightful portions of his life.

General Jackson was very kind to him, and won his lasting esteem and gratitude. Upon being asked if he would sit for his bust, the old hero hesitated, and, looking at the artist nervously, asked: "Do you daub any thing over the face? Because," he added, "I recollect poor Mr. Jefferson got nearly smothered when they tried to take his bust. The plaster hardened before they got ready to release him, and they pounded it with mallets till they nearly stunned him, and then almost tore off a piece of his ear in their haste to pull off a sticking fragment of the mold. I should not like that." Powers assured him that such a terrible process would not be necessary, but that he only wished to look at him for an hour a day, sitting in his chair. The General brightened up at once, and cordially told him it would give him pleasure to sit for him. He at once installed the artist in a room in the White House, and gave him a sitting of an hour every morning until the model was done.

Mr. Powers regards the bust of Jackson as one of his best efforts, and the President himself was very much pleased with it. After he had completed his model, Mr. Edward Everett brought Baron Krudener, the Prussian Minister to Washington, to see it. The Baron was a famous art critic, and poor Powers was terribly nervous as he showed him the bust. The Baron examined it closely, and then said to the artist, "You have got the General completely: his head, his face, his courage, his firmness, his identical self; and yet it will not do! You have also got all his wrinkles, all his age and decay. You forget that he is President of the United States and the idol of the people. You should have given him a dignity and elegance he does not possess. You should have employed your art, sir, and not merely your nature." The artist listened in silence, and Mr. Everett stood by without saying a word, "conscious," as he afterward confessed, "of a very poor right to speak on such a subject," after listening to so famous a critic. "I did not dare," says Powers, "in my humility and reverence for these two great men, to say what I wanted to in reply; to tell the Baron that my 'art' consisted in concealing art, and that my 'nature' was the highest art I knew or could conceive of. I was content that the 'truth' of my work had been so fully acknowledged, and the Baron only confirmed my resolution to make truth my only model and guide in all my future undertakings."

One of his sitters in Washington was Senator Preston, of South Carolina, who conceived such an interest in him that he wrote to his brother, General Preston, of Columbia, South Carolina, a gentleman of great wealth, urging him to come to the artist's assistance, and send him to Italy. General Preston at once responded to this appeal, of which Powers was ignorant, and wrote to the artist to draw on him for a thousand dollars, and go to Italy at once, and to draw on him annually for a similar sum for several years. Powers was profoundly touched by this noble offer, and accepted it as frankly as it had been made. He sent his models to Italy, and took his departure for the Old World in 1837. Speaking of Mr. Preston's generosity, he said, two years ago: "I have endeavored to requite his kindness by sending him works of mine, equal in money value to his gifts; but I can never extinguish my great obligations. I fear he don't like me since the war,-for I could not suppress my strong national feelings for any man's friendship,-but I like and honor him; I would do any thing in my power to show him my inextinguishable gratitude."

He reached Florence in advance of his models, and while waiting for them made two busts, one of a professor in Harvard College, and the other of an American lady. A severe domestic affliction, however, which came upon him soon after his arrival in Italy, affected him so greatly that he was not able to return to his work for a long time. Then he applied himself to his busts, which were warmly praised by the artists in Florence and by his countrymen traveling abroad. Thorwaldsen visited him in his studio, and pronounced his bust of Webster the best work of its kind in modern times, and praises from other distinguished artists were equally as warm. Orders came in rapidly from English and Italians, and from Americans in Europe, and the sculptor soon had as much business as he could attend to. He gave his leisure time to work on an ideal figure, which, when completed, was purchased by an English gentleman of wealth. This was "The Greek Slave," the most popular of all his works. Duplicates of it were exhibited in America and at the Crystal Palace in England, and won him praise from all quarters. This single work established his fame as an artist, and brought him orders from all parts of the civilized world. His statue of "Eve," which had preceded "The Greek Slave" by a year, had been pronounced by Thorwaldsen fit to be any man's master-piece, but it had not created such a furore as "The Greek Slave." Subsequently he made an exquisite bust of the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, with which the Grand Duke was so pleased that he called on Powers, and asked him as a favor to himself to apply to him whenever he could do him a service. Powers asked permission to take a cast of the Venus, and this much-coveted boon, which had been denied to other artists for years, was at once granted to him.

Since then his works have been numerous. Among these are "The Fisher Boy," of which three duplicates in marble have been made; "Il Penseroso;" "Proserpine," a bust; "California;" "America," modeled for the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, England; "Washington" and "Calhoun," portrait statues, the former for the State of Louisiana, and the latter for the State of South Carolina; and "Benjamin Franklin" and "Thomas Jefferson," in the Capitol at Washington. His works are all marked by beauty and vigor of conception as well as by exquisite finish. Beautiful as his ideal figures are, he yet excels in his busts and statues of the great men of his native land. His "Jefferson" and "Franklin" are wonderful works, and his "Calhoun" is said to be almost life-like. This last was wrecked on the coast of Long Island on its voyage to America, and remained in the sea for some time, but being well packed was found, when raised, to be only slightly damaged by the water.

Mr. Powers has now resided in Italy for thirty-three years. Motives of economy have controlled his action, for he would gladly return to his own land did he feel justified in doing so. He has thus stated the reasons which have influenced his long residence abroad:

Sculpture is universal. The human form is of no country, and may be studied with equal advantage at home and abroad. The opportunities of studying it abroad are so immeasurably greater than at home, that I do not see how it is possible, without great loss, to neglect them.

1. It is impossible to model successfully without living models; and in America, in my time, it was almost at the peril of reputation, both for model and sculptor, that an artist employed the living model, even if he could procure it. Now, I understand, a few models may be obtained in New York; but they are so rare and so expensive, that it is almost ruinous to employ them. It costs two or three dollars there to secure a model which here may be had for half a day for forty cents. There is no want of models here; but their history is a sad one, and makes one often seriously lament the necessity for employing them. Young women, especially, are driven to this employment by the want of bread. I have numerous offers of their services made by parents who are in great distress. I make it a point to discourage all who come to me from entering the business, and am only conquered when I feel sure that, if I decline, they will be driven to other studios. I prefer only professional models, already thoroughly committed to the calling, as I shrink from the responsibility of leading any into so perilous a vocation. They are usually accompanied by their mothers, and I strive to treat them in a way to save their self-respect and delicacy-a very hard task, which too often breaks down in less scrupulous hands.

2. The opportunities of anatomical studies are here nearly perfect, and free from all expense. The medical schools not only illustrate anatomy by surgery on the cadaver, but standing by the side of the dead body is a living one, in which the action of the muscles dissected before the student may be studied in life. These colleges are open to all artists, and furnish the best possible schooling in anatomy, a thorough acquaintance with which is indispensable to the sculptor, and can only be obtained in America at great cost.

3. Marble is no cheaper here than in New York, the long sea-carriage costing no more to America than the short land-carriage does from the quarries to Florence or Rome. But good workmen, who can not be dispensed with, are so abundant and so cheap here, so rare and so dear at home, that that alone is a decisive reason for coming abroad. Even here it is a heavy expense to procure sufficient and competent workmen; at home it is almost at ruinous cost and with nearly insuperable difficulty. I have two workmen-as good, certainly, as the best in America-to the finest of whom I pay only four dollars a day. He could make twice that cutting weeping-willows on American tomb-stones. What could he not justly demand in wages from a New York sculptor? I employ a dozen workmen in my studios; the poorest, at work on pedestals and rough work, earn about half a dollar a day; the moderately skilled, a little over a dollar. The whole cost me about fifteen dollars per day, which is wonderfully low. Then, my rent-which could not, for my extensive accommodations, be less than two thousand five hundred dollars a year in any eligible position which the public would visit-reaches only about four hundred and fifty dollars, annually.

But, 4. The general expenses of maintaining a family are so much less here than at home, that a man without capital, possessing a profession so slow in reaching its pecuniary returns as an artist's, finds an immense inducement to live abroad. It is true that, music and accomplishment in languages apart, the opportunities of a substantial education for one's children are not as good here as at home. There are, however, less temptations to vice, and less exposures to the American habit of hard drinking among young men; but, no doubt, the general influences here, in the way of developing a manly, energetic, and self-relying character, are less favorable than at home. There is a softness, a disposition to take life easy, and a want of moral earnestness in Italy, which are not favorable to youthful ambition and independence. On the other hand, the money-getting propensities and social rivalries of America tend to harden human character, and to bring out a severe selfishness which is offensive. On the whole, the balance is on our side, and, other things apart, American youth are better brought up in America. But the artist must make this sacrifice to his art.

Mr. Powers is sixty-five years old, but is in full possession of his mental and physical strength. He is a genuine American, notwithstanding his long residence abroad, and has always a warm welcome for his countrymen visiting his studio. He is a favorite with the younger artists, who find in him a kind and judicious friend. Scorning servile imitation, he still exhibits in his works the freshness of his youth and the genuine originality which was the basis of his fame.

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