Story, William Wetmore (1819-1895)
William Wetmore Story (1819-1895)
Legal Profession. As the son of a respected Supreme Court justice, William Wetmore Story appeared to be headed toward a distinguished career in law. But he became sidetracked from that profession and chose to seek fame in the arts, publishing several literary works and becoming the most celebrated American sculptor of his time, patronized by European royalty, American businessmen, and Pope Pius IX. Born on 12 February 1819 in Salem, Massachusetts, Story earned his law degree in 1840 from Harvard College and began practicing law in Boston. Here he became part of an intellectual coterie that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Allston, and James Russell Lowell. In addition to publishing two legal treatises, he served as an art critic and literary editor. His two collections of poetry from this period (published in 1847 and 1856) were undistinguished.
New Career. When his father died in 1845, Story was commissioned, somewhat unexpectedly, to design a statue for the tomb. Having already displayed some talent with sculpting, he sailed to Italy in 1847 to gain the necessary technical proficiency to complete the task. His marble portrait, Joseph Story (1854), was well-received when it was placed in Mount Auburn Cemetery, which further encouraged his artistic ambitions. By 1856 he had settled permanently in Rome, his salon in the Palazzo Barberini becoming a great social and intellectual center, where he entertained lavishly. With his affable manner and considerable social skills he attracted a distinguished group of friends that included Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Fame . Story’s sculpture first earned widespread public admiration at the London International Exhibition in 1862, where his Cleopatra (1858) and Libyan Sibyl (1861) were the highlight of the show. Hawthorne contributed much to Story’s success by his lavish praise of Cleopatra in The Marble Faun (1860). Indeed his work was admired by many, as Story attracted a steady series of commissions. He followed with several esteemed sculptures, most depicting mythological or biblical characters, and portrait statues of prominent contemporaries. Typical of these works are Sappho (1863), Medea Contemplating the Murder of Her Children (1864), and Saul, When the Evil Spirits Were Upon Him (1868). The dramatic themes and psychological approach of his later works were notably influenced by the theories of his close friend Robert Browning. Story’s best known portrait statue, of Boston orator Edward Everett, was a critical failure when it was unveiled in 1867, helping to mark the shift in public taste from the Italiante neoclassicism of Story to the newer realistic style emanating from Paris.
Writings. Possessed of many talents, Story also received some recognition for his belletristic efforts: Roba di Roma (1862), a collection of essays with Story’s commentary on Roman art, history, and culture; Graffiti d’Italia (1868), considered his best collection of poems; and Fiametta; A Summer Idyl (1885), his only novel. He died on 7 October 1895 in Vallombrosa, Italy. Though his artistic reputation declined precipitously after his death, he achieved a measure of lasting renown through the publication of Henry James’s biography, William Wetmore Story and His Friends (1903).
Henry James, William Wetmore Story and His Friends (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903).
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