Artists & Designers

William Wetmore Story (1819-1895)

The son of US Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, William Wetmore Story became one of the leading artists of an expatriate colony of American sculptors in Rome during the second half of the 19th century. He specialized in portraits of legendarily troubled women who lived lives of political intrigue and psychological and sexual drama, such as Semiramis (1999.117.A-B), the doomed Egyptian queen Cleopatra, and the notorious Greek Medea, who murdered her own children.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, and raised in Boston, Story earned undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard in 1838 and 1840, respectively. He did not begin to sculpt professionally until 1845 when he was selected to create a sculpture for a monument to his father (in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Boston). Like most aspirant sculptors of his day, he traveled to Rome for training and to establish a workshop in which Italian sculptors would assist with later commissions. There he and his family took apartments in the Palazzo Barberini, becoming the social headquarters of the expatriate arts community in Rome. Frequent visitors included sculptor Harriet Hosmer (The Sleeping Faun, after 1865, Boston Museum of Fine Arts) and poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Story spent close to two decades sculpting brooding female subjects fraught with internal tension and emotional turmoil. His fascination with tales of intrigue, deception, and tragedy guided his choice of subjects. The power of his sculptures rests in his ability to probe the psychological depths of his characters and give visual form to those troubled souls.

Adapted from

Eleanor Jones Harvey, DMA Acquisition Proposal (1999.117.A-B), April 1999.

Fun Facts

  • Artistically inclined from youth, he dabbled in drawing and sculpting, and developed into a prolific and respected writer and poet. He was a gifted amateur playwright, and a respected critic of art, music, theater, history, and philology. His close friends included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, and later, Henry James.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne described Story's first full-scale figure, Cleopatra (1858, Los Angeles County Museum of Art), in his book The Marble Faun, published simultaneously in Boston and London in 1860. This book quickly became an indispensable guide for Grand Tourists, and Hawthorne's description of Cleopatra resulted in much increased foot-traffic to Story's Roman studio. In 1862, Pope Pius IX requested Story's Cleopatra and Libyan Sibyl (1860, Metropolitan Museum of Art) to be included in the Roman pavilion of the International Exhibition in London.
  • The Palazzo Barberini is a Baroque palace originally created for Pope Urban VIII. Three important Italian architects (Carlo Maderno, Francesco Borromini, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini) oversaw construction between 1627 and 1633. Today it houses the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica.

Web Resources

American Neoclassical Sculptors Abroad
Read Thayer Tolles's October 2004 essay on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art).