page top

Letter from HIRAM POWERS to GEORGE PERKINS MARSH, dated December 31, 1857.

Add to bookbag Add to Bookbag | Bookbag (0)

Item Description

Title: Letter from HIRAM POWERS to GEORGE PERKINS MARSH, dated December 31, 1857.


  • Powers, Hiram, 1805-1873


  • Marsh, George Perkins, 1801-1882

Source Document

Extent: 1 letter

Genre(s): letter


Note [Digital Version]

, Center for Digital Initiatives, University of Vermont Libraries

Type of Resource: text

Parent Collections

Other Formats

Access Conditions

For usage rights related to this resource please visit:
More information.

Permanent Link:

Preferred citation

Letter from HIRAM POWERS to GEORGE PERKINS MARSH, dated December 31, 1857., Original located at the University of Vermont's Special Collections in the George Perkins Marsh Collection, filed by date., (accessed January 17, 2018)

Letter from HIRAM POWERS to GEORGE PERKINS MARSH, dated December 31, 1857.

Transcribed by : Ralph H. Orth

TEI mark-up by : James P. Tranowski andEllen M Thomson

Published by: University of Vermont. All rights reserved.

Publication Information

Honble George P Marsh
(A Happy new year to you all)

My Dear Friend

I am afraid you are mistaken in your estimate of Capt Meigs and that you may judge him better I shall copy below an extract from his letter to a friend of ours in Washington. The occasion of this letter was a conversation with him by that friend, in regard to the appropriation of $24000 by Congress, and a request on her part that Capt M would give his views upon it. She wrote out for me, what she understood him to say, but fearing that she might have misstated something, sent him her letter to which he replied as you will see --

Mr Everett, to whom I sent a copy, stated, that he had no doubt that I had to contend with the entire influence of Capt Meigs with the late President -- You should know, that at the time Capt M wrote this letter, he had long since contracted with Mr Crawford for his statue of "America" or "Liberty" the same thing, but it does not appear that he said any thing about this to my friend -- This contract could not have been made with Mr Crawford earlier than about 5 months after Congress had, as I have always thought, virtually given me that commission and Capt M knew that I expected it--of all this I am quite sure. But I did not know of this contract until long after it had been made. The first I heard of it, was on the occasion of Mr Crawfords visit here on his last trip home. I had a long talk with him but he said nothing about it although I told him how I had been treated. He offered his services with the President and Capt Meigs saying that he was going directly to Washington, and "If I can do any thing for you command me." The same day, he called on my neighbour Mr Kinney, and left with him a photograph of his small model of "America" as it is Called in his studio at Rome! --

You will perceive that the extract begins with irony

"Perhaps $25000. may be a very small price for the America. I cannot pretend to value it, but I know there is no information in the reach of the President which would justify him in affixing such a value to it. Let Mr Powers correspond direct with the President, who I am pretty sure has had no letter from him. Let him say, I perceive that Congress has voted $25000 for a work of art from my hand. I value my America at $------ and offer it to the country at that sum -- I will send it to Washington, and if upon seeing it, and consulting with those who have knowledge in such matters you think my price reasonable--well -- For the balance of the appropriation, I offer to execute a statue of--whatever he pleases. Of course--if he thinks $25000 the proper price of the America he need say nothing of any other work --

The sum is so much greater than the usual price paid for statues, that I think the effect upon art in this country of paying it will be injurious. Congress will vote large sums to fill the niches of the Capitol if they get the statues at such prices as private persons and other nations pay. But if each statue is to cost $25000, there will be but about one ordered in a generation of 30 years, and there is room for 100 statues. -------------------------------- Page -------------------------------- This is one way in which I think it will injure art. Another is in the mortification of all other sculptors, who see the Country pass them by when willing to work for 4 or $5000 a statue, and offer $25000 to one fortunate individual. It places him by the action of the Chief Magistrate, which the world will take as the expression of the public voice so far above them that they will feel injured by it. But let Mr Powers employ no agent, but write direct. The President was charged by Congress with the negociation and it is Mr Powers right to correspond with him -- He will at once get a frank reply. If it goes much longer unsettled, it must come before another President." The above was dated Dec 8th 1856, less than 3 months before the term of service of Genl Pierce expired--and what time was there then to open a correspondence, over so great a distance, "direct with the President?" It is true I might have thrown aside the friendly services of Mr Everett, taken the matter into my own hands, written to the President who might or might not have answered my letter in time to receive a reply before the 4th of March in the following year, and that would have been all -- But it was clear already, that I had no friends in the President and Capt Meigs, and I preferred to trust Mr Everett with whatever was yet to be done -- If you consider attentively Capt Meigs letter, you will come to my conclusions I think, viz, that it was written in no friendly spirit. That he had no high opinion of me as an Artist--that it was a misstatement to say, that there was no information in the reach of the President which would justify him in offering such a value (25000$) to my statue, if made Colossal and I offered so to make it -- That he takes a Commercial view of the matter--and thinks that all artists should be paid alike--or nearly so, that the Govt should pay no more than Individuals pay--that it is an object to fill the 100 niches [as] fast as possible. That it would be injurious to art to make any distinction on account of superior claims among artists and that he had reasons for supposing that certain artists already employed by him would feel hurt if he paid me more than them --

But if there had been no information in the reach of the President which would justify him--the law of Congress would have justified him, and this the President admitted distinctly in one of his letters to Mr Everett --

You say that enough has been paid for the works which are done and being done for the Capitol, but I do not suppose you mean that too much has been paid if the works are well done -- If they are not well done any price would be too much -- And here I ought to tell you how some of them have been, and are being done -- The models have been prepared in Rome, in an astonishingly short time, (Mr Crawford told me that he had modelled 3 Colossal statues in 6 months!) and then sent over to Washington there to be executed in a marble of the Country, not by the Artist himself or his workmen, but by marble carvers in the employ of the Government! -- I need say no more! Now do you think they will be executed? -------------------------------- Page -------------------------------- Is that the way to deal with Gods Image? Or how do you think the Liberty" will be finished? Mr Crawford prepared a rough little model for it, before he went home the last time, and that is about all he ever did to it. The Colossal Statue has been wholly modelled by his workmen and the most of it in his absence from Rome -- Indeed he has never seen it!

I have no doubt that he was expected by Capt Meigs to do so, and that poor Mr Crawford conformed to all the Conditions of his contract, but is this the way to decorate our Capitol with sculpture? -- With Colossal statues modelled in 2 months each? -- If it is, why then I too might make a fortune by such commissions at even lower prices--by employing Tom Dick and Harry at a few pauls a day to do the work, but when I do such a thing may my hand be palsied ---- You do not know me if you suppose, that I would undertake to supply models of statues for any manufacturing establishment at a rate at which pattern makers supply Steam Engine Founderies! -- And, lest my motives be suspected if I am not permitted to raise my voice against this kind of Capitol Decoration--why then as an American Citizen who glories in the proud name of his Country I will protest against it --

I know that the tendency of the age is speed--speed in every thing--and if I linger behind with my beloved art, which next to my wife and Children--I hold dear, mine be the punishment, as it will be the satisfaction while I live, and the credit, what it may be with future generations--of having done my best, regardless of mere worldly considerations -- I cannot model the human form in 2 months! The nine hundred millions of human beings--and no two alike! I Cannot determine which is most perfect, in so short a time! -- I confess myself puzzled in this vast multitude--seeking for the true type of the Infinite, and I grope in the dark -- Why, the Great Creator Himself requires (ordinarily) 9 months to produce even the bud of Humanity!

You say, that my "declining a Commission for a pediment of the Capitol was not well received in this Country" But the truth is, I never did decline such a Commission No such commission has ever been offered to me! What I declined to accept was, Capt Meigs proposal that I should propose for such a commission -- He wanted me to furnish designs for his consideration and probably had I done so, they would have been accepted and the commission would have been given, but I am not sure of it--for he wanted estimates of the cost also, and I should have been forced to place them so high (in comparison with the prices now published by Capt M) that it is doubtful if any Contract would have been made -- In Capt Meigs statement of "Capitol Extensions Items of Cost," published in the Union, you will see that Mr Crawford engaged to furnish the model for the Colossal Statue of "Liberty" for $3000. -- -------------------------------- Page -------------------------------- Now, had such a Commission been offered to me I should have demanded a far larger price than that--for I should have intended to do the work with my own hands and spend at least a year upon the model. I could not live and model Colossal Statues for $3000 --

You will perceive now, I think, the true nature of my Case as regards the proposal of Capt Meigs and that had I accepted it, it would in all probability have led to no advantage in a pecuniary view at least -- I should have had to contend with under bidders, as well as the impatience of my employers with the snail pace of my progress. I saw at once the idea of Capt Meigs, which was to hurry up the decorations as he would a viaduct for a Canal or an abutment for a bridge. But there were other reasons which have been expressed in former letters to you--all against my accepting such a proposal--and I am only too glad now, that I have had nothing to do with it -- I can comprehend the views of the Government--or Capt Meigs--for he seems to be the Government so far as the Capitol decorations are concerned, but cannot entertain them or be made instrumental in carrying them out--my idea of the dignity of the art to which I have already devoted the best part of my life will not permit me to make a traffic of it or prostitute it for money -- My statues are, so to speak, my Children, and they shall not be sent out upon the world half made up to become the laughing stocks of men of taste, and the disgrace of their father -- No, I have gained some reputation by patient study and pains taking, and no temptation shall ever take it away -- I am now about 52 years old, and have worked hard most of my days and am in a worldly sense a poor man -- I have seen much younger artists preferred before me by our Government, my own claims set aside to favour them, and in short my long cherished hopes from this quarter all fail, but am not discouraged -- I can continue to live abroad if I must, and find supporters out of my own country -- I have tried to prove to myself that honesty is the best policy and if unsuccessful why then let it be set down to the exception to all rules --

And now about going home, for some of my friends have strongly urged me to do so, and see the President in person -- But what could I say to him that has not already been said? He might say--"Very well. If you will accept the terms upon which Mr Crawford and others have contracted with the Government there will be no difficulty." I might indeed answer, that Individuals pay me far better when he might answer--"If that is the case, why then you do not need a Commission from the Government," and so send me about my business -- Then I might go among the members of Congress for signatures to a paper recommending me to the mercy of the Executive, as has been done -------------------------------- Page -------------------------------- by Persico on the occasion of the order for his group of Columbus and the Indian Girl, which now disgraces the Capitol Steps--in short, I might court the Authorities in various ways now so common in Washington, but shall not if I starve for it. It shall be said that at least one American sculptor would not appear in the scramble for Commissions --

It is painful to read the notices of Poor Crawfords death and funeral in the same paper that speaks of his successor on the Virginian Monument in one article--and the repudiation of him as such by Mrs Crawfords brother, in another--a scramble already as to who shall pick his bones! But this is the order of the day now. It has long been so politically at home but I hoped once, that Politics and the Arts would stand on Separate platforms, that however great might be the throng of office seekers in Washington, our Artists would not adopt the means employed by them for preferment, throng about the Capitol and underbid one another. I was in Washington during 3 Sessions of Congress, and it might be said that I set the example if I had done as Persico did. But I never asked any one to recommend me--never asked for a vote -- I made a bust of Judge Marshall, and got our Ohio Representative (Mr Storer) to propose it to Congress, which he did, and the Committee on the Library reported favourably. Congress gave me $500 for it, just one half the sum paid to other artists for busts of other Chief Justices of the Supreme Court -- I made two water jets--which were set up in the pools before the Capitol. I hoped indeed--that on seeing them in play--Congress would give me spontaneously an order for a public Fountain but did not directly or indirectly ask it, and I was allowed $500. for my work -- Finally, I starved out in Washington, and had it not been for the Liberality of Mr Longworth, and Col John S Preston, I should have returned to Cincinnati poorer than I went -- -- It did not even occur to me, that by importuning the members as Persico did, I might get a large commission from Congress -- I thank God, that I was there so green. For had I been more worldly wise, I might have gone at once into the labour of making statues instead of preparing myself by years of study for such service -- But what is the use of such study and preparation? Why plough the field--sow the grain and wait for the harvest? Under laws--(a Government) which permits a Clarke Mills! to reap it and bar you out of the field? Nay--the very means you have taken to improve yourself are brought in array against you -- "He has expatriated himself, gone abroad, and prefers, it seems, to live there. Let us give encouragement, to our own Countrymen who stay at home and choose to live among us" -- Had I gone into the back woods, and made a rude "Chair of buck horns" for the President to sit upon, then indeed I should have been rewarded--by some office in the Gift of that officer. I could then have enjoyed the high honour and profits of a Country Post Master, Land agent or something else -- But why talk? -- The north wind blows! Do I think to stop it with a hand bellows? -- No, I will go in--to my Cabin -------------------------------- Page -------------------------------- stir up the dieing embers--and wait for a change of weather -- But I cannot wait long, I am too old--my family too large, and some of my children are grown up. We must turn out soon. The hive must swarm--and where shall it go? -- I have thought of England--where I am already a small Prophet, and more than one warm friend has invited me to come -- I think of going there in the spring with my statue of America -- They will forgive the broken chains [of] tyrrany under her foot if my own Country will not. I have the promise, that all shall be done that is possible--to dispose of this work to advantage in England -- And yet I love America & intend to go to my lasting home there if I may -- I used to humbug people when I managed the "Infernal Regions" (an Exhibition) at Cincinnati. I had a cart load of old wax figures to convert in to devils, and by warming the wax I was able to modify the features. I made a Beelzebub of Lorenzo Dow, a Cannabal of Napoleon and God forgive me! a hypocrite of John Quincy Adams and a coquette of Charlotte Corday! But I made no horses to stand on their hinder legs alone or upon their tails. I worked upon the superstitions and credulity of country people, and the simple means I took served my purpose -- Had I to deal with such a learned body as the Congress of the United States, perhaps, I should have got up an equestrian statue of Lucifer, mounted on a Flying [Gurmandergingero?], with wings, so that not even the tail should touch the ground -- It was this wonderful and unprecedented feat of keeping the tail off the ground and making the horse stand on his hinder legs alone! that carried Mills flying through Congress -- This wonderful achievement was exalted in speeches, set forth in the newspapers amp;c. as a thing of the highest merit! -- But what was it after all? To make many Equestrian statues now existing, stand on their hind legs alone, you have only to saw off their tails near the ground! -- In all cases where the horse rears very high, this could be done and the statue would not immediately fall--but the wind would cause them to vibrate, standing as they would on 2 points instead of 3--the third--always deemed necessary for steadiness and to prevent vibration--and that Mr Mills horse will come down on some windy day or night I can hardly doubt, for it does vibrate fearfully I am told, notwithstanding the great size of the pasterns -- This is the reason why "no other artist ancient or modern ever made a bronze horse to stand on his hinder legs alone" I could make a bronze horse stand on his tail alone, but not long--in so windy a place as Washington--I believe that the more enlightened members of Congress now perceive that they have been humbugged, and that Mills has lost much of his popularity.

The casting of the statue too, which was thought so wonderful! the story about the new furnace (the melted crowbar in a Coal pit suggested it) amp;c. amp;c., has all turned out humbug -- It was not Mills but a german bronze founder that did the work--and when it is considered, that the statue is a patch work of more than a dozen pieces, although as a whole, so small, we see that it might have been done in any common brass foundery and by an -------------------------------- Page -------------------------------- ordinary workman -- The German bronze worker claims also, to have finished Mills model of the Jackson Statue -- And yet this pretender in Art is to execute the greatest commission ever given to an American sculptor. Our Washington is in his hands! It is sickening to think of it! This is the man whom the Government delights to honour! This is the Government sculptor already established at the Capitol! Would you have me try to displace him? The last President and the Present as well as the Secretary of State (Genl Cass) have treated my claims with the greatest coldness, and I am not insensible to it. Would it become me to plead with these authorities? -- You say, "It is an immense object for you to secure the patronage of the Government. We are decorating the Capitol and our other public buildings on a scale of great magnificence, and if the first step is well planted, you are at once sure of the most profitable and honourable occupation for life" Honourable it might be, but not profitable, for as I have told you--I am only a snail in art. I could not get on fast enough to make it profitable -- I get more from Individuals than the "Items of Cost" by Capt Meigs. The truth is out. It has been published to the people -- Cheap sculptures can be had, there are plenty of artists ready to undertake them--and the Peoples money must not be wasted upon old fogies like me --

That Congress has intended and does intend to decorate our Capitol on a magnificent scale I do not doubt, but will it be done? What constitutes magnificence? Is it the quantity or the quality? Is it gilding and glitter--or solid gold? Do you think, that when our Capitol falls into decay--as all human structures must some day or other, Any future Lord Elgin will think it worth his while to saw off figures from its walls which for the most part have been modelled by proxy at Rome, and executed by Government Labourers in Washington? Those arms and legs, torso's! Those fragmentary ruins which still clung to the walls of the Parthenon, after ages of exposure to the wear of time, the shot and shells of Barbarians Those master pieces of Phidias, which still seem flesh warm and nobly human! Do you think they were so modelled and so executed? -- Read the Confession of poor Mr Crawfords Brother in Law--Mr Ward, published in the N York Evening Post, and you will see how our Capitol is being decorated --

Does the Poet employ assistance to write out in full his small conceptions? Who did Shakespeare or Milton get to do the labour of their great compositions? -- And yet Art is Poetry. It matters not how written, on parchment--paper--canvas, or marble -- Did they hurry up their works? How long was Milton composing his Paradise lost, and how long was Ghiberti in modelling "The gates of paradise?" or how long was Gray in setting in burnished gold, those Diamond thoughts which sparkle in the wreath he has thrown upon a church yard? -- And what amount of money would it require (if it were possible) to buy from the English nation the honor of having given birth to those three Artists? -- I beg their pardon for calling them Artists, for any body can be an Artist now. Clarke Mills is an Artist, and Napoleons Cook is a great Artiste -- You are shaved by an Artiste and your Wife is made to look like the great bell of Moscow by an Artiste -- There are Artistes at the corners of the streets, -------------------------------- Page -------------------------------- who brush your boots for a penny, and the sweepers even, claim distinction for grace in turning a corner or a curbstone! -- No doubt, our Capitol will be decorated and that soon. If required, I could engage a legion of decorators, they swarm here, and are willing to work cheap! I could engage 20 in Florence, and 50 at Carrara--who would agree to make statues for the Capitol at from $500- to $1000 a piece! a very great saving in "the peoples money"! -- Why employ our artists to do it when they get the natives to do it at ¼th the price and pocket the balance? -- Thus gaining time and money to leave their families at expensive watering places, while themselves at Washington to humbug the members of Congress and the Executive? -- These are some of the mysteries of art, which you should know but, it would not do for me to reveal them publicly. Fortunately, I am saved the risk and trouble, for Mr Crawfords Brother in Law has let the cat out. I doubt however--if the animal will be recognized, she may be mistaken for a rabbit, in the disguise she wears -- "But I rather think" that Mr Randolph Rodgers will strip her of all disguise and show the claws -- He is now bound to show his own too, in self vindication. But I have done, I have written you a long letter at snatches as I could spare the time -- You will perceive by it, that I do not expect any thing from the Government now. The day has gone by at which people are paid [...] for taking pains --

I begin to feel concerned for the safety of my statue (in bronze) of Mr Webster. It has been a very long time at sea, and nothing heard from it [in] last accounts from home -- But if lost I can have another cast, as the moulds have been preserved --

I have two statues now going on in marble, "Washington" as Grand Master of Masons--and "California""La Penserosa" has arrived and been put up in Mr James Lenox house in N York. But few will be allowed to see it I am sorry to say, as Mr. Lenox is very exclusive -- I have also several portrait busts in hand the last is of Mr Jared Sparks, the historian --

There have been a considerable number of strangers here this season, although many turned back on account of the financial crisis -- Not many orders have been given to artists owing probably to the same cause --

The last news from home is very exciting, a split in the Democratic ranks--and Douglass! at the head of it!--surely wonders will never cease! -- I take it that Kansas will now become a free state. It is curious, that all the instruments employed by the President, as Governors of Kansas, have blunted in his hands and turned their edges back upon him--and now the prime mover of all this difficulty has turned upon him tooth and nail! -- This is ominous of the fate of slavery extension if not of slavery itself -- It would seem as if heaven had spoken -- "Thus far shalt thou go and no farther" But it is always so with fanaticism -- The Temperance cause would have succeeded if they had not forbidden wine--and even Cider! The question, "What can't I have even a mug of Cider?" was the last pound that broke the back of the Camel. The free states will bear--have borne a vast deal of southern ointment, but they won't stand the rubbing in--they back up against it, and kick -- Senator Douglass has found this out--perhaps in time -- He thinks of becoming the Democratic free soil candidate for the next Presidency! --

I received Georges letter but have not time to answer it now. Pray remember us all most kindly to him as well as to Mrs Marsh also to Miss Buel if she is with you--

Hoping to hear from you soon, I am ever sincerely your friend

Hiram Powers. note:Florence Dec 31st 1857.

Add a comment:


* Optional

User Comments