HIRAM POWERS’S THE LAST OF THE TRIBES: AN ALLEGORY IN THE POST-CIVIL WAR ERA
Best known for his 1843 sculpture The Greek Slave, which provided a coded commentary on American slavery, Hiram Powers produced many lesser-known works that provide an even more complex picture of American attitudes towards race following the Civil War. His The Last of the Tribes (1867-72) is a case in point. The marble sculpture depicts an idealized white woman running past a chopped tree trunk, with a distressed expression on her face. Rendered in the artist’s typical Neoclassical style, the woman is nude from the waist up, but wears an intricate, yet fantastical, flowing kirtle. By depicting the woman in this romanticized state of semi-undress, rather than in an accurate wardrobe of a specific Native American nation, Powers puts forward a highly generalized and imagined idea of an indigenous person. Most scholars have read the work as a literal representation of Indian Removal in the wake of westward expansion. While this interpretation holds merit, it neglects the broader political, racial, and cultural context in which the work was made, sold, and seen. This thesis explores the sculpture’s complex and multifaceted iconography, subject matter, and material to understand the appeal it would have held in post-Civil War America. Drawing on the historical representation of Native Americans and contemporaneous depictions of runaway slaves, I argue that The Last of the Tribes is an allegory for America as a state in transition. It speaks to Native American removal, but also abolition, yet fundamentally folds these issues into a broader statement and (re-)assertion of whiteness. In this way, the work departs from other sculpture depictions of Native Americans at the time. While works like Erastus Dow Palmer’s Indian Girl, or the Dawn of Christianity (1853-56) and Thomas Crawford’s Native American subjects in his pediment for the United States Capitol building (1863) explicitly address Native removal, Powers’s piece revels the broader racial and ethnic struggles of which removal was a part. In general, it speaks to the ways in which national identity was being re-defined in the post-Civil War era. Ultimately, I posit The Last of the Tribes reveals the multi-faceted racial tensions taking place in the United States at the time, and how nineteenth-century sculpture both hides and later reveals these tensions.
NotesDegree Awarded: M.A. Art. American University
Degree grantorAmerican University. Department of Art