Race and self-governance: William Wetmore Story, Cleopatra

A conversation with Tyler Green and Beth Harris in front of William Wetmore Story, Cleopatra, marble, modeled 1858, carved 1865, 137.16 x114.3 x 68.58 cm (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

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Story, Cleopatra

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Key points

  • William Wetmore Story’s marble sculpture of Cleopatra was initially conceived in clay in 1858, three years before the start of the United States Civil War. Story exhibited his first marble version of the sculpture in London in 1862, just a few months before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863. He completed a second, modified marble version in 1865, the year the war ended and the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery across the country. Story made a number of additional marble copies of this second version in the years following the war, during the Reconstruction period. 
  • In the 19th century, an ongoing debate about the racial identity of Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt (ruled 51–30 B.C.E.), was folded into larger debates about slavery in the United States. In particular, her heritage was referenced in arguments made by white people regarding the physical and intellectual capacities of Black people for self-sufficiency.
  • Story positioned himself as an abolitionist, and he published letters in England (1861) and the United States (1862) that publicly outlined his support for the U.S. cause and his rejection of slavery. He even called another of his sculptures, the Libyan Sibyl (1860–61), his “anti-slavery sermon in stone.” Like most other American Neoclassical sculptors working in the mid-to-late 19th century, however, Story addressed issues of race with ambiguity, using the form of white marble female bodies that largely conformed to European standards of beauty.

Go deeper

Causes of the U.S. Civil War: Images in a Divided World, from “The U.S. Civil War in Art” by Smarthistory

William Wetmore Story’s Cleopatra (1862 version) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

William Wetmore Story’s Cleopatra (1865 version) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

William Wetmore Story’s sculpture of the Libyan Sibyl (1860–61) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (1860); a good friend of Story’s and fellow expatriate living in Rome, Hawthorne included the story of the sculptor creating the first version of Cleopatra in his famous gothic romance novel.

Marie-Stéphanie Delamaire, “William Wetmore Story’s Nubian Cleopatra: Egypt and Slavery in 19th-Century America” in Cleopatra Reassessed, British Museum Ocassional Papers 2003, pp. 113–17.

Margaret and Martha Malamud, “The Petrification of Cleopatra in Nineteenth Century Art,” Arion: A Journal of the Humanities and the Classics, vol. 28 no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2020), pp. 31–51.

Charmaine Nelson, The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

More to think about

  1. How does the chronology of Story’s work on Cleopatra and of the Civil War (see key idea #1 above) inform your understanding of the sculpture’s symbolism? 
  2. How might Story’s portrayal of Cleopatra be read as helpful in the U.S. government’s effort to persuade the British government not to support the Confederacy?

The following quotes from the period may provide additional context and perspectives that will enrich class discussion about these questions. The first three quotes specifically refer to Story’s Cleopatra.

“Some years ago, when visiting Rome, I related Sojourner [Truth]’s history to Mr. Story at a breakfast at his house. Already had his mind begun to turn to Egypt in search of a type of art which should represent a larger and more vigorous development of nature than the cold elegance of Greek lines. His glorious Cleopatra was then in process of evolution… The history of Sojourner Truth worked in his mind and led him into the deeper recesses of the African nature… A few days after, he told me that he had conceived the idea of a statue which he should call the Libyan Sibyl… We hope to see the day when copies both of the Cleopatra and the Libyan Sibyl shall adorn the Capitol at Washing­ton.” 

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, The Libyan Sybil, The Atlantic Monthly (April 1863), 473–81

“The sculptor had not shunned to give the full Nubian lips, and other characteristics of the Egyptian physiognomy… In a word, all Cleopatra—fierce, voluptuous, passionate, tender, wicked, terrible, and full of poisonous and rapturous enchantment—was kneaded into what, only a week or two before, had been a lump of wet clay from the Tiber.”

From “Chapter XIV ‘Cleopatra” in Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun, 1860 Note: Hawthorne, a good friend of Story’s and fellow expatriate living in Rome, included the story of the sculptor creating the first version of Cleopatra in his famous gothic romance novel.

“We may ethnologically object that Cleopatra, sprung from Hellenic blood, could not be African in type. Still it is a generous idea, growing out of the spirit of the age—the uplifting of downtrodden races to an equality of chances in life with the most favored—to bestow upon one of Africa’s daughters the possibility of the intellectual powers and physical attractions of the Grecian siren.” 

James Jackson Jarves, The Art-Idea: Sculpture, Painting and Architec­ture in America (New York, 1865), 281–82.

“A capital error …  is the idea that cultivation, through a series of generations, can expand the defective brains, develop the intellectual faculties of the Negro Races, and thus raise them by degrees to the full standard of excellence which belongs to the Caucasian Races: that they can, in a word, be fully civilized, and fitted for self-government, in its highest and most complicated forms … their physical type is peculiar; their grade of intellect is greatly inferior; they are utterly wanting in moral and physical energy.” 

Josiah Nott, An essay on the natural history of mankind, viewed in connection with negro slavery: delivered before the Southern Rights Association, 14th December, 1850 (published as pamphlet in 1851, p. 15–16)

“For we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.”

Houston Hartsfield Holloway, a freedman reflecting on the experience of emancipation in his autobiography, written 1903–13

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”Cleopatra,”]

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