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Nude statue to be shelved in Vt. legislative session

MONTPELIER -- Governor James Douglas wants a lamp that is a replica of a famous 19th-century nude statue removed from his State House office before the legislative session starts next month.

The lamp, installed on his desk recently as part of a State House restoration project, is a replica of a statue of a chained slave. It was crafted by a Vermont artist in 1843 and became an icon of the abolitionist movement before the Civil War.

"The governor does not object to the art," said Douglas spokesman Jason Gibbs. "It may, frankly, be awkward to explain why there is a nude Greek slave on the governor's desk to a third-grader."

Gibbs said, however, the principal reason for removing the lamp is its own safety. He said that during the legislative session, which begins Jan. 5, the governor's ceremonial office is often crowded, and the lamp, which cost $2,500, could be knocked over and damaged.

"We thought that it would be risky for it to remain when so many people use that office during the legislative session, and so many student groups come and often sit at or around the governor's desk," Gibbs said.

The ornate office is used heavily while the Legislature is in session, but governors work most of the time out of a suite of modern offices in an adjacent building.

During a recent staff meeting in the office, a member of the governor's senior staff covered the lamp with a napkin, mimicking the US Justice Department, where three years ago officials covered with blue drapes a nude statue in the main lobby of the department's headquarters in Washington. "It was all in good fun," Gibbs said.

Douglas, a Republican just reelected to a second two-year term, is no stranger to the State House and its art. He has worked in and around the building for more than 30 years, as a member of the House, an aide to a governor, and as secretary of state and state treasurer.

The first of six examples of "The Greek Slave" was sculpted by Woodstock-born artist Hiram Powers in 1843. It quickly became one of the most famous pieces of sculpture of the era.

The woman depicted in the statue, her hair tied back in a bun, is looking downward, a chain attached to her wrists.

In the original, her clothes are beside her and a locket and cross are visible.

"It's a wonderful statue," said Vivien Fryd, an art historian at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, who has written about the statue. "It was the first time the American public accepted the female nude."

"The Greek Slave" is an image of a woman captured by the Turks during Greece's war for independence.

"She is a pure woman who is only thinking of her family," Fryd said. "It was OK to look at her because you really couldn't look at her body, only her purity."

The statue became a symbol of slavery. "It very much became a rallying point, especially for the abolitionists," Fryd said.

"The Greek Slave" lamp was donated to the governor's office by a nonprofit group, The Friends of the State House, as part of the ongoing restoration of the building.

Schutz said the lamp would be removed from the office during the session, which runs from January through roughly May.

"I am, of course, respecting his wishes. It is, after all, his office," Schutz said. "I don't believe the governor had as much concern as some staffers concerned about school groups visiting," he said.

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