Artist: William Wetmore Story (American, Boston, Massachusetts 1819–1895 Vallombrosa)

Date: 1858, carved 1869

Medium: Marble

Dimensions: 55 1/2 x 33 1/4 x 51 1/2 in. (141 x 84.5 x 130.8 cm)

Classification: Sculpture

Credit Line: Gift of John Taylor Johnston, 1888

Accession Number: 88.5a–d


Neoclassical sculptors often drew upon mythology, ancient history, the Bible, and classical and contemporary literature for their subject matter. The full-size marbles of Massachusetts native William Wetmore Story exemplify this trend, and Cleopatra, his most famous work, was one of dozens of subjects such as Medea, Delilah, Electra, and Saul that were produced in his Rome studio. In these sculptures, Story developed a particular personage as the theme for his sculpture: famous—or infamous—personalities from history, usually female, are presented on a monumental scale, in a moment of extreme cerebral activity. Whether reflecting on past behavior or contemplating future actions, the figures are thinking about deeds of cataclysmic significance. Story described his interest in depicting such moments in sculpture: "What is left undone is as necessary to a true work of art as what is done." For him the suggestion of imminent action was more provocative than the depiction of melodrama. Inspired in his choice of subject by the current resurgence of interest in Egyptian culture, in 1858 Story began modeling his Cleopatra (69–30 B.C.), the last Macedonian ruler of Egypt, meditating on her suicide. The attention paid to historical accuracy is matched by the virtuosity of the carving. Viewers of Story's work admired his attempts at archaeological correctness in his portrayal of Cleopatra's nemes, the headcloth worn by Egyptian royalty, topped with the uraeus, or cobra headdress. Although Cleopatra's jewelry and other details of the work have a Victorian flair (the scarab bracelet, for example, is in the style of the day), Story was successful in setting the "Egyptian" tone of his sculpture.