story and photos by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — If you look within the chandelier that illuminates Representative Hall in the Vermont State House (the cavernous room many refer to as the “House chamber”), you will see small statuettes depicting four unclothed women among four clothed women. On the clerk’s desk, on the rostrum, and on the middle of the Corinthian pilasters between the rich red-draped windows are other small statues integrated into the original gaslight fittings made in the late 1850s.
On the eve of the coming Legislative session, with pending concerns such as budget woes, poverty, education, health care and marijuana legalization, The Bridge felt compelled to learn of the significance of the decorations and glean any insight they might lend to the job of governing Vermont. State Curator David Schutz took time out of one of his busiest days on the job (December 30) — less than a week before the Legislature reconvenes — to talk with The Bridge.
Many of the sculpted fixtures are apparently random statuettes from Victorian-era molds, said Schutz, as he reinstated a restored historic Vermont flag in the chamber with the help of Assistant State Curator Jack Zeilenga. Schutz said some figures suggest stories (such as a pair of sconces, one titled “The Departure,” which shows a young man going away, and to its right, one titled “The Return,” which shows an older military man coming home), while others depict famous figures such as Benjamin Franklin or allegorical concepts. For example, the clothed female subjects in the chandelier, said Schutz, are called “allegories” that represent four abstract ideals: Eloquence, Prudence, Commerce, and Science. We could all use that for inspiration.
Yet, among the menagerie of characters, the one with closest ties to the state is the one standing unabashedly naked and in chains — a smaller rendition of the original “Greek Slave” sculpted by Woodstock, Vermont-native Hiram Powers in 1843.
“Hiram Powers was the cousin of building superintendent Thomas Powers,” writes Nancy Price Graff in her recent collaboration with Schutz titled, “Intimate Grandeur: Vermont’s State House,” published this year by Friends of the State House. Graff attributes the significance of “Greek Slave” to the time when it was installed. “Scandalous at the time for its nudity, the figure of a beautiful and chaste young woman being sold into bondage was nevertheless especially fitting considering Vermonters’ passionate opposition to slavery.” The political topics of slavery and temperance “burned more hotly in 1859 than the building’s gleaming new gaslights,” Graff writes. Equal opportunity for women and temperance (marijuana prohibition?) are still in the political spotlight over 100 years later.
The statue is notable because it was “arguably the most famous sculpture of the 19th century,” according to a July 2015 article, “The Scandalous Story Behind the Provocative 19th Century Sculpture ‘Greek Slave,’” written by Menachem Wecker for Smithsonian.com. Crowds gathered to view plaster casts of it in a traveling exhibition that started in 1847 and continued for years.
Schutz further explained how the figure depicts a Christian Grecian woman who fell victim to the Ottoman Turks and was shown being sold into slavery in Turkey in the 1830s. The symbol of her image was soon adopted by abolitionists of the time and channeled into the antislavery fervor for which Vermonters are known and that was famously echoed by the governor who presided over the Legislature on the eve of the Civil War.
“Governor Erastus Fairbanks of St. Johnsbury stood at that rostrum and gave a speech in support of the union,” Schutz said, “urging legislators to double the amount of men and money requested by President Abraham Lincoln.” Schutz pointed out that because the State House was built in 1859 — and preserved in its original condition — art pertaining to the Civil War is plentiful. “The State House is a building of that era. You can look at a room today and it looks as it did when Erastus Fairbanks uttered those words from that rostrum,” Schutz said.
A prominent Philadelphia manufacturer of gas light fixtures, Cornelius and Baker, produced the chandelier incorporating the small sculptures, which included four miniaturized and identical reproductions of “Greek Slave.” “It is one of the few custom touches in the State House,” Schutz said. A replica of this sculpture can also be found in the ceremonial office, because, when he was in office, Governor Howard Dean requested a “task lamp” because the chandelier did not provide enough light during the dim winter days of the legislative session. “We had the mold of ‘Greek Slave’ so we could easily cast a lamp,” Schutz said. So the symbol of desired freedom stands on the governor’s desk, despite a brief hiatus when then Governor Jim Douglas asked to have it removed because he didn’t want to explain it to school children, according to several news reports. However, a maelstrom of protests from historians and others from Powers’ native Woodstock pressured the administration to allow it back.
Beyond the historic statue, Schutz notes that the State House is actually an actively used museum that looks the same as it did in 1859. Legislators may use the latest technology, such as iPads, while sitting in the same chairs in front of the same desks used by their predecessors 156 years ago.
“Here is where the House and Senate chambers are the oldest legislative chambers in the U.S. that are in original condition and still in active use in the 21st century, “ said Schutz.
And how did antique gaslight fixtures survive the years when most state houses around the country put in modern electrical lights? Because, said Schutz, “when electricity came to the State House, they snaked wires through the gas pipes and that is what preserved these great fixtures.” Schutz credited Vermont’s frugality as being the driving force, because it was less expensive to jury-rig the existing gas fixtures with electrical wiring than to order an entirely new lighting system.
Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who met Hiram Powers at his studio in Italy, praised the “Greek Slave” figure in a sonnet:
“They say Ideal beauty cannot enter
The house of anguish. On the threshold stands
An alien Image with enshackled hands,
Called the Greek Slave! as if the artist meant her
(That passionless perfection which he lent her,
Shadowed not darkened where the sill expands)
To so confront man’s crimes in different lands
With man’s ideal sense. Pierce to the centre,
Art’s fiery finger! and break up ere long
The serfdom of this world. Appeal, fair stone,
From God’s pure heights of beauty against man’s wrong!
Catch up in thy divine face, not alone
East griefs but west, and strike and shame the strong,
By thunders of white silence, overthrown.”