Sculptor. Also a lawyer and writer. As an artist, he is known especially for interpretations of literary themes, usually drawn from antiquity or the Bible. He also produced portraits, mostly of friends or family, as well as narratives based on other sources. Although shaped by the prevailing neoclassicism of his day, he achieved a personal variant emphasizing monumentality, restraint, and archeological or ethnographic exactitude. He also accommodated late-nineteenth-century interests in narrative and psychology. In Rome, where he lived for more than forty years, he numbered among celebrated members of the Anglo-American community. His many friends included such literary notables as Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Henry James, who wrote a two-volume biography, William Wetmore Story and His Friends (1903). In The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne based his description of a sculpture by his fictional hero on one of Story's celebrated works. Born in Salem, Massachusetts, Story moved with his family when he was ten to Cambridge, where his father, a United States Supreme Court justice, served on the faculty at Harvard University. After graduating from Harvard in 1838 and from the university's law school two years later, Story worked as an attorney in Boston while also pursuing an amateur interest in the arts. Despite his lack of formal artistic training, after the elder Story died, his son agreed to provide a memorial sculpture (Memorial Hall, Harvard University, 1855; originally, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge) and departed in 1847 for Europe to develop the necessary skills. He soon settled in Rome, where for nearly a decade he vacillated between legal and artistic careers. Despite return visits to Boston, he never again lived in the United States for an extended period. In 1856 he closed his law practice to settle permanently in Rome. There his apartments in the Palazzo Barberini became a gathering place for English and American luminaries.
Story established his international reputation in 1862, when his marble Cleopatra (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1860; modeled 1858) and Libyan Sibyl (Metropolitan Museum, 1861) were exhibited at an international exhibition in London. These massive, brooding figures number among the most significant pieces of his career. Several other over-life-size figures, generally seated and draped (though sometimes partially nude), also picture powerful women, including Sappho (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1863) and Medea (Metropolitan Museum, 1868; modeled 1865). Their passions are submerged in thoughtful reflection, as their grandly conceived, static forms play against detail establishing historical authenticity. Devoted to imaginative goals and financially independent, Story only occasionally accepted the portrait commissions that provided security for most of his contemporaries. However, he produced about a dozen prestigious public monuments, including Chief Justice John Marshall for the U.S. Capitol grounds (now United States Supreme Court; 1883–84) and Francis Scott Key (1886) in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. In the final decade of his life, Story became less active as a sculptor but continued to travel and write. Devastated in 1894 by the death of his wife of fifty years, he produced a touching memorial for her grave. (The following year he was buried by her side.) Its face hidden as it collapses in misery, Angel of Grief Weeping Bitterly over the Dismantled Altar of His Life (Protestant Cemetery, Rome, 1895; modeled 1894) also concluded Story's sculptural work. During his final months, he lived with his daughter at Vallombrosa in Tuscany. Story's extensive and wide-ranging writings include poetry, fiction, art theory, essays, volumes of legal scholarship, and a tribute to his father, The Life and Letters of Joseph Story (1851). A two-volume travelers' companion to the Eternal City, Roba di Roma (1862), found the widest audience. The novel Fiammetta (1886) is often regarded as his most successful fiction. “Cleopatra,” conceived as an accompaniment to the sculpture of that subject, is included in the poetry collection Graffiti d'Italia (1868). Collected essays appeared as Conversations in a Studio (1890) and Excursions in Arts and Letters (1891).