Born on a farm near Woodstock, Vermont, on July 29, 1805, Powers received little schooling as a child. Moving westward with his family, first to New York and then to Cincinnati (1819), he worked at odd jobs in whatever employment he could find.
After his fathers death, he went to work in a Cincinnati clock and organ factory (1822-28). And during this period he also began visiting the studio of sculptor Frederick Eckstein, who quickened his interest in art.
Then working as a sculptor in a Cincinnati museum, he became adept at modeling wax figures.
Leading local citizens, including Nicholas Longworth, who encouraged him to move to Washington, D. C., late in 1834 to do portraits of famous men. Here he made busts of John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, among others.
Although he continued to do portrait busts, he began work on a life-size figure, "Eve before the Fall," which was highly praised. And this he followed in 1843 with his famous marble sculpture entitled, "The Greek Slave."
Powers was praised on the one hand for his "spirituality" and on the other for his simplicity and precision. In 1858, now the best-known American artist, he was invited to contribute decorations to the United States Capitol building in Washington. In 1863, he produced his well-known statues of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
Powers chose, however, not to spend his later years in the United States. Instead, he established himself in Florence, Italy, and remained there until his death on June 27, 1873.