Hiram Powers had been working in Washington, D.C., for less than a year when John Marshall, who had been chief justice of the United States for over three decades, died at the age of 80. It was a momentous event for the capital and the country, because politicians and the public alike generally revered Marshall and his seminal contributions to American constitutional law.
Not surprisingly, Powers used the opportunity presented by the mood of national mourning to offer portraits of Marshall to the public. Powers was favorably positioned to produce such sculptures because, as he later recounted, several months before Marshall’s death the chief justice had granted him eight sittings of half an hour each for the modeling of his bust in clay. This model must have been completed before March 20, when Powers left for Cincinnati; Marshall died on July 6.
The life portrait was a coup for Powers–with Marshall’s death, it became substantially more valuable. Preparing to make plaster casts of the portrait bust available for sale, Powers solicited testimonials to its accuracy. One of these letters was from President Andrew Jackson, to whom he had given a cast. Powers paid to have Jackson’s testimonial engraved to accompany an advertisement offering the casts for sale to the public at $10 apiece. Powers also lobbied Congress for a commission to carve a marble bust of Marshall for the Capitol. (A series of sculptures of chief justices had already been authorized.)
Powers’s effort toward a federal commission succeeded. By resolution of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 12, 1836, the Joint Committee on the Library was instructed to “cause a marble bust of the late Chief Justice Marshall to be prepared by an artist of merit and reputation, and to be placed in the chamber of the Supreme Court of the United States, in a position corresponding with that of the bust of the late Chief Justice Jay.”  The committee agreed to give Powers the assignment and later appropriated $500 for the work.
Apparently because Powers did not yet have the technical ability to sculpt in marble, he decided not to attempt to fulfill the commission before his intended departure for Italy. Instead, he modeled other portraits in clay. When he sailed for Europe late in 1837, he had completed 13 busts, which followed him in a ship that reached Italy on May 28, 1838. Of these, at least two were translated into marble by Powers himself: a bust of Andrew Jackson and the Senate’s John Marshall portrait. Powers acquired a remarkable skill in marble carving in a very short time, and the bust of Marshall was finished by early December 1839. Because producing the marble sculptures from the clay models was customarily done by the talented Italian carvers in Powers’s studio (a practice almost universally adopted), these two busts are among the very few marbles carved entirely or largely by Powers.
The Marshall sculpture is most notable for the strong naturalism of the head, a characteristic it shares with Powers’s bust of Andrew Jackson. In depicting Marshall, Powers balanced a vulnerable, aged body with an unshakable moral spirit. The viewer sees an 80-year-old man, while also seeing–or sensing–the intellect, the self-control, the absolute impartiality, and the perfect sense of justice that made the man. His level eyes seem to emanate dignity, despite the fact that the eyeballs are blank (this treatment was a neoclassical idealism based on a misconception about ancient sculpture). The original clay life model seems to have been simply a head with an undraped body, for in a letter about the marble, Powers wrote, “I have added drapery to it & it is regarded by my visitors as one of the best works in my collection.”  The additions of the Roman toga and blank eyes to the marble version are the only departures from the prevailing naturalism of the piece.
The Marshall bust was formally accepted by the Joint Committee on the Library in 1840 and was subsequently presented to Congress and placed on view in the Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol. Librarian of Congress John S. Meehan recorded in June of 1840, “The work has been most elegantly and satisfactorily performed by Mr. Powers.” Hiram Powers, on the other hand, believed that he had been underpaid and always regretted pressing for the commission, which he felt cost him the opportunity of making a full-length statue of the great chief justice.
A full-length marble statue of Benjamin Franklin by Powers is also located in the U.S. Senate, and Powers’s full-length statue of Thomas Jefferson is located in the House wing of the Capitol.
1. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives Journal (7 December 1835) 24th Cong., 1st sess.: 335.
2. Richard P. Wunder, Hiram Powers: Vermont Sculptor, 1805-1873, vol. 1 (Newark: University of Delaware Press; Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1989), 121.