William Wetmore Story (American, 1819–1895)

Object Place: Rome, Italy


Overall: 137.5 x 85.1 x 84.1 cm, 952.55 kg (54 1/8 x 33 1/2 x 33 1/8 in., 2100 lb.) Block (White marble base (recessed into the wooden skirt)): 7.3 x 86 x 85.1 cm (2 7/8 x 33 7/8 x 33 1/2 in.) Overall: 94 cm (37 in.) Mount (Rolling steel base - 3/4" thick painted wooden skirts): 39.7 x 116.2 x 117.2 cm (15 5/8 x 45 3/4 x 46 1/8 in.) Other (Four steel Rollers rear locking single wheels): 14 cm (5 1/2 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique


On View

Penny and Jeff Vinik Gallery (Gallery 233)





The subject of this sculpture, Sappho of Lesbos, the sixth-century-B.C. Greek poet, was a virtual Rohrschach test for nineteenth-century intellectuals, who often interpreted what little is actually known of her life and work to reflect their own predilections. For example, one journal stated in 1859 that Sappho was of “warm poetic temperament, of great lyric power, of voluptuous, passionate yearnings, and of many moral shortcomings.” William Wetmore Story saw her differently and chose to portray her in a calm, ideal pose. Seated in a klismos chair, she contemplates throwing herself off a cliff into the sea after her rejection by the Greek ferryman Phaon. A wilting rose, a symbol of failed love, droops across her unstrung lyre, contributing to the mood of listless reverie.

Story was born in Salem, Massachusetts, and raised in Cambridge. He was the son of Joseph Story, a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and law professor at Harvard University. Although he followed his father into the legal profession, earning a law degree in 1840, his real interests lay in art, music, and literature. After his father’s death in 1845, a committee of Cambridge citizens invited him to create a memorial to his father for Mount Auburn Cemetery. Having no experience in making monumental sculpture, Story moved with his family to Rome to study portrait memorials. The monument to his father was completed and accepted in 1853, and Story returned to his law practice in Boston in 1855. The next year, however, he permanently abandoned the legal profession and settled his family in Rome. He began producing idealized sculptures of literary and mythological subjects, but his work received little recognition until his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne used Story’s sculpture of Cleopatra as the subject of his novel The Marble Faun, published in 1860.

This text was adapted from Ward, et al., MFA Highlights: American Decorative Arts & Sculpture (Boston, 2006) available at


William Stirling Crawford, Scotland; Castle Hill Antiques, Edinburgh, Scotland; Arnette Antique Galleries, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Credit Line

Otis Norcross Fund