William Wetmore Story ( American, active in Italy, 1819 - 1895 )

designed 1872, carved 1873
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General Description

Carved from a single block of marble, this imposing statue of a brooding queen is a fictional portrait of Semiramis (seh-MIR-ah-miss), queen of Assyria around 800 B.C.E. Although a historical figure, by the late 19th century Semiramis had become the stuff of legend: an ambitious woman who seized power through the murder of her husband before being killed by her own estranged son. This view was popularized through the French philosopher Voltaire's 1784 play and the Italian composer Rossini's 1822 opera, both of which helped inspire William Wetmore Story's composition.

Semiramis epitomizes Story's preference for female characters embroiled in tales of sexual power, murder, and vengeance. In his portrait, Story combined the monumental scale, idealized features, and classical drapery of European neoclassicism with historically accurate details of hairstyle and jewelry meant to evoke the ancient Near East. Story made a clay maquette, or model, in 1872 and used it to garner commissions for the full-sized work. Like many 19th-century sculptors, Story supervised a team of trained Italian carvers during production of the final marble sculptures. Two versions of this statue exist: this example, made for the American collector William Blodgett, and another now housed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Story's sculpture presents the queen fully in command of her throne, but deeply absorbed in her own thoughts, contemplating the evil she has wrought. The sculptor delighted in the archaeological research required to outfit his subjects and lavished this queen with Assyrian jewelry—bracelets, a necklace, and jeweled diadem. Discreetly yet provocatively dressed, her long legs crossed, she rests on an Assyrian style chaise. Her long hair falls in tight ringlets down her back. This slightly over life-size sculpture rests on its original pedestal base, shaped like a sarcophagus, underscoring the melancholic and tragic implications that underlie the subject.

Adapted from

  • DMA Label copy (1999.117.A-B), 2010.
  • Eleanor Jones Harvey, DMA Acquisition proposal (1999.117.A-B), April 1999.

Fun Facts

  • William Wetmore Story created numerous sculptures of women who represented dramatic, romantic, and often tragic narratives. In addition to Semiramis, he produced fictional portraits of Sappho, Alcestis, Delilah, the Cumaean Sibyl. He also sculpted portraits of his male contemporaries including Josiah Quincy (president of Harvard 1829-1845), Edward Everett (Massachusetts politician), and George Peabody (entrepreneur and philanthropist).
  • William Blodgett, the American collector who commissioned the Semiramis now in the Museum's collection, also owned Frederic Edwin Church's second major Arctic painting, Aurora Borealis (1865, Smithsonian American Art Museum). The monumental marble sculpture now sits with Church's first Arctic scene, Icebergs (1979.28) nearby.
  • Story likely saw Rossini's Semiramide opera while his favorite diva, Adelaide Ristori (1822-1906), sang the role.

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