From the Collection–Hiram Powers’ “Proserpine”

Hiram Powers (American, 1805-1873).  Proserpine.  Designed 1844; made 1844-1878.  Marble; 25 x 19-1/4 x 10 in.  Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection L1897.1.  Photo credit: Larry Sanders.

Hiram Powers (American, 1805-1873). Proserpine. Designed 1844; made 1844-1878. Marble; 25 x 19-1/4 x 10 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection L1897.1. Photo credit: Larry Sanders.

–Or, I Can’t Believe I Ate (Almost) The Whole Thing!

In the Museum’s American Collection galleries, in the Lower Level of the Kahler Building, you will find a sculptural bust of a very pretty young woman.  Carved out of gorgeous white marble, she seems lost in thought, musing on something. Could she be musing her fate?

The young woman in question is Proserpine (“Persephone” in Greek), the goddess of spring, according to Classical mythology.

Proserpine is one of the most famous victims of date rape, ever.  What’s even ickier is that the aggressor in question was her uncle, Pluto (“Hades” in Greek), the god of death and the Underworld.

One day when Proserpine was out and about minding her own business, Pluto decided he had to have her for his bride.  Accordingly, he kidnapped her and brought her down to the Underworld, land of the dead. Fortunately for Proserpine, her mother Ceres (Demeter), goddess of the harvest, was not going to take this lying down.  After investigating her daughter’s disappearance—during which time the earth lay fallow and parched—Ceres figured out that her brother was the culprit and went down to the underworld to get her daughter back.

It’s sort of like a Classical version of a Lifetime Network mother’s vengeance movie, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, Proserpine was making the best of things.  So much so that she decided to have a snack, which in this case consisted of eating six seeds from a pomegranate.  Then as now, pomegranates were gorgeous, luxury fruits, and a very sensuous eating experience. But Classical mythology, pomegranates were considered the food of the dead. (Which, given their antioxidant properties, is certainly not the way they’re marketed today!)

When mama Ceres showed up in the Underworld, ready to rumble, she learned two things:  one, that Proserpine had fallen in love with her uncle/husband; and two, there was that pomegranate-eating business that linked her daughter to the dead.

Thus, Proserpine was only able to leave the underworld for only six months at a time.  The remainder of the year—the other six months—she had to stay there, since she had eaten six seeds from the pomegranate.

The myth ends very tidily, with Proserpine returning to the land of the living, bringing—you guessed it—flowers and good weather with her.  Proserpine’s travels are the way Classical storytellers accounted for the changes of seasons.  (In Milwaukee, we know very well about six months of winter!)

Hiram Powers (American, 1805-1873).  Proserpine.  Designed 1844; made 1844-1878.  Marble; 25 x 19-1/4 x 10 in.  Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection L1897.1.  Photo credit: Larry Sanders.

Hiram Powers (American, 1805-1873). Proserpine. Designed 1844; made 1844-1878. Marble; 25 x 19-1/4 x 10 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection L1897.1.

The Milwaukee Art Museum’s bust of Proserpine was designed by Hiram Powers, a Cincinnati-born artist who became one of the first American artists to move permanently to Rome in the mid-nineteenth century.  Powers was fascinated by the artistic legacy of the Eternal City.  This explains why the bust of Proserpine looks like it might actually have been made several thousand years earlier.  Surrounded as he was by surviving examples of Classical statuary, Powers carefully evoked the clean lines of antiquity, giving his pomegranate-eating goddess a hairstyle based on the past, as well as choosing a format—the bust length—that also harkened back to Ancient Rome.

The suggestion of absorption on Proserpine’s part, however, is something that is very much Powers’ own, nineteenth-century combination.  As much as he and his eventual American colleagues in Italy borrowed from the past, they also infused their works with narrative elements, personalities and emotions that were very contemporary.

The bust of Proserpine was so popular that Powers made numerous versions of it.  The Milwaukee Art Museum’s bust was acquired by Milwaukee collector Frederick Layton, the meatpacker and philanthropist who established the city’s first public art gallery—and the ancestor of our current Museum—in 1888.

So as we wait for spring to arrive, come to the Museum to see Proserpine and encourage her to get moving and hurry up already!

William Keyse Rudolph is the Museum’s curator of American art and Decorative arts, focusing on the Museum’s collections of American painting, sculpture, ceramics, glass, furniture, silver, and textiles from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

About William Keyse Rudolph

Curator of American Art and Decorative Arts As curator of American art and Decorative arts, William focuses on the Museum's collections of American painting, sculpture, ceramics, glass, furniture, and textiles from the 17th to the 20th centuries. A self-admitted portraiture geek, he also not-so-secretly likes European porcelain, all portrait miniatures, over-the-top 19th Century historical revival objects, coffee, state fairs, cheeseburgers, and all dogs.
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2 Responses to From the Collection–Hiram Powers’ “Proserpine”

  1. KDM says:

    Thank you for you placing this work on display – I enjoyed the opportunity to see her and the other works of American Art you recently rescued from collection storage. KDM

  2. Pingback: Mythology at the Milwaukee Art Museum–Part 1 | Milwaukee Art Museum Blog

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