William Wetmore Story, Cleopatra

What does this marble sculpture of Cleopatra tell us about race and the Civil War in the U.S.?

William Wetmore Story, Cleopatra, marble, modeled 1858, carved 1865, 137.16 x 114.3 x 68.58 cm (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond). Speakers: Tyler Green and Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re in the beautiful galleries at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. We’re looking at an interesting sculpture of Cleopatra by an American artist, conceived before the Civil War. The first marble version is created during the Civil War, and the version that we’re looking at is from 1865 at the conclusion of the Civil War. It’s really interesting to think about this sculpture in that context.

Tyler Green: [0:30] It’s by William Wetmore Story, whose first conception of this work was made in Europe in 1858, in clay. Story first exhibits it in 1862 in London at the Great Exposition, at a time when it was really important to the Union that England not support or formally recognize the Confederacy.

[0:51] The other versions after that first one were all made in ’65 or later, so at the end of the war or afterward. Cleopatra was the last active ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt. She was a descendant of Ptolemy I Soter, who was a Macedonian Greek general, and we don’t know who her mother was. The reason that’s relevant to us is there’s no clear consensus on whether or not her mother was African or whether Cleopatra had any African ancestry.

Dr. Harris: [1:19] For decades, even, in fact till very recently, the question of Cleopatra’s skin color has been something that both historians and the public have been interested in.

Tyler: [1:30] If we think of her as being Greek, it’s possible to understand her as having been culturally constructed as white.

Dr. Harris: [1:35] On the other hand, Egypt is in Africa.

Tyler: [1:37] Is she, perhaps, for Story, a European — read white — ruler of Africans, what could have been understood in the context of the late 1850s as a questioning of the potential of Black men and women for self-sufficiency?

[1:54] There is a major debate across 19th century America about whether men and women who are not culturally constructed as being white have the capacity to function and contribute to a republican system such as that in the United States. One way of thinking about this Story is that in presenting a European ruler of Egyptians, maybe he’s engaging that debate with ambiguity.

Dr. Harris: [2:19] It’s a tour de force of sculpture: the carving of the drapery, the way that these lovely folds that remind us of classical drapery hang over her belt, the way that the drapery makes these lovely complicated folds over her right shoulder, and then this Egyptian headdress. We’re reminded of how she commits suicide by the bite of a snake by the appearance of a snake along the hem of her garment.

Tyler: [2:44] The other thing that’s going on in 1858 of course is it’s clear to everyone in American polity, in American culture, that the Civil War is inevitable. American artists have been engaging with this idea of the inevitability of schism for a decade at this point.

Dr. Harris: [2:57] This question of what will happen when the millions of people who are enslaved become free.

Tyler: [3:05] In that context, we could consider Story as asking, “Are Black men and women prepared to be freedmen? If suddenly there are millions of freedmen in the United States, who will lead them? What capacity do they have to lead themselves?”

Dr. Harris: [3:19] I think it’s really important to see this against a racist backdrop that is putting forward ideas about African Americans being not human in the same way that white people are. It’s interesting to me that these questions are being played out in American sculpture often with white bodies in white marble. We could think, for example, of Hiram Powers’ “Greek Slave.”

Tyler: [3:43] It won’t be until very late ’62 or 1863 that you have major sculptures of recognizably Black figures in American art.

[3:51] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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

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Cite this page as: Tyler Green and Dr. Beth Harris, "William Wetmore Story, Cleopatra," in Smarthistory, February 11, 2022, accessed June 25, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/william-wetmore-story-cleopatra/.