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History Corner: Statehouse Statuary

Within the chandelier in the Vermont House chamber are small statuettes. A few years ago, in 2016, with legislators facing perennial public concerns such as budget, poverty, and education, State Curator David Schutz was asked about the decorations.

Many of the sculptures are statuettes from Victorian-era molds, said Schutz at the time. For example, the clothed female subjects in the chandelier are called “allegories” that represent four abstract ideals: Eloquence, Prudence, Commerce, and Science. Yet, among the characters, the one with closest ties to the state is standing naked and in chains — a smaller rendition of the original “Greek Slave” sculpted by Woodstock, Vermont-native Hiram Powers in 1843.

The statue was “arguably the most famous sculpture of the 19th century,” per a July 2015 article, “The Scandalous Story Behind the Provocative 19th Century Sculpture ‘Greek Slave,’” by Menachem Wecker for Smithsonian.com. Crowds gathered to view plaster casts of it in a traveling exhibition starting in 1847 and continuing for years.

Schutz explained how the figure depicts a Grecian woman being sold into slavery by the Turks in the 1830s during Greece’s struggle for independence against the Ottoman Empire. The symbol of her image was soon adopted by abolitionists of the time and channeled into the antislavery fervor 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 urging legislators to double the amount of men and money requested by President Abraham Lincoln,” Schutz said. And because the Statehouse was built in 1859 — and preserved in its original condition — art pertaining to the Civil War is plentiful. 

The chandelier incorporates four miniaturized reproductions of the Greek Slave. “It is one of the few custom touches in the Statehouse,” Schutz said. A replica of this sculpture could also be found in the ceremonial office, because, when he was in office, Gov. Howard Dean requested a “task lamp” since there was not 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 stood on the governor’s desk, despite a brief hiatus when then Gov. 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 Statehouse is an actively used museum that looks much the same as it did in 1859.