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Arts of North America

Art created in North America includes objects made by native cultures of the present-day United States and Canada; paintings and decorative arts produced during colonial times; 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces; and the work of contemporary artists and photographers.

 
 
 
HIRAM POWERS
American, 1805 - 1873
The Last of the Tribes
1867–74
Marble

66 x 20½ x 33 inches

 
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Museum purchase with funds provided by
the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund

Arts of North America
 
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According to Hiram Powers, the most celebrated American sculptor of the 19th century, this partially nude marble figure represents a Native American woman who is “run[ning] in alarm, looking back in terror . . . fleeing before civilization.” The sculpture illustrates the view, popular at the time, of Native Americans as “noble savages,” doomed to extinction because their traditional ways were being threatened by the westward expansion of the United States.

In The Last of the Tribes, graceful, undulating lines capture all the nuances of the figure’s form and demeanor. The subject is dressed in an exquisitely detailed skirt, with diamond patterning throughout and tassels that give the sense of movement as she runs. Part contemplative mood, as suggested in the graceful and noble turn of her head, and part high drama (she flees from cultures in conquest), this sculpture projects a poignant and romantic image of a so-called vanishing culture shortly before the Indian Wars ended native self-autonomy.

Of note is that Powers accomplished this effect from his vantage point of Florence, Italy, using an Italian woman as a model and creating a fantastical costume that never existed in any Native American culture (except for the Ohio moccasins she wears that apparently formed a part of Powers’s studio collection). This potent combination of fantasy, romance, and morality often permeates art of the Victorian era.