Details & Cataloguing

19th and 20th Century Sculpture Including Highlights from the MEAM Collection: Part I


William Wetmore Story
1819 - 1895
signed and dated in cypher: W W Story Roma 1885
white marble
211cm., 83in.
Read Condition Report Read Condition Report


Graf János Pálffy, Bratislava;
sold in the Pálffy sales, Pollak and Winternitz, Vienna, 1924;
and thence by descent;
Sotheby's London, 6 June 1997, lot 63;
private collection, Switzerland

Catalogue Note

This important marble by the great American sculptor William Wetmore Story was discovered in 1997 and sold in that year at Sotheby's. The rediscovery of Orpheus is to date one of the largest additions to the corpus of Story’s oeuvre. It is almost certainly a unique sculpture. Research to date has found no other documented versions, and prior to 1997 it had been known to experts only from old photographs.

It is significant that Story’s modus operandi was notably different from many other neoclassical sculptors, such as Powers or Rogers, in that he more readily produced new models or made important changes to his most popular works, rather than produce large numbers of replica.  His Cleopatra and Libyan Sibyl are indeed known in various versions, but many others are unique productions. Story’s output is dominated by female figures (apart from a few biblical males) and his statue of Orpheus stands out as a distinguished classical male subject.

Story would often work on a theme in marble and poetry in parallel, most successfully with his Cleopatra. It does not seem, however, that he ever tackled the subject of Orpheus in verse, but Story is known to have been a keen music-lover. A devotee of the opera, he was at one time a professor of the S.Cecilia Society and is reputed to have had a fine singing voice himself. With such a complex personality all these undercurrents serve to heighten the intensity of Story’s choice of subject.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, Story came from a distinguished legal family. He was of a man of immense versatility as a lawyer, in which he graduated in 1840, as an author of poetry, prose and drama and as a critic of art in all its forms, all of which made him an eminent host and focus for the Anglo-American community in Rome. Story settled in the eternal city in 1856. Amongst his other most important ideal works are Sappho (1863) in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Delilah (1886) and Saul (1881) in the M.H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, Media (1868) in the Metropolitan Museum, New York and Alcestis (1874) in the Wadsworth Atheneum. Ramirez has pointed out that Story ‘preferred to depict personalities whose passions were on the brink of eruption: the notorious, the wronged, and the martyred. He was particularly attracted to melancholy, brooding females as sculptural subjects’. Orpheus is a stunning illustration of many of these concerns, but in the rare genre of a mythological male figure.

Orpheus was acquired, and very probably directly commissioned, by Count János Pálffy. Pálffy’s collection, which was mainly housed in his Paris residence, was certainly one of the richest of the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1912 over one hundred paintings from his collection were bequeathed to the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, including works by Titian, Veronese, Petrus Christus, Giordano, Guercino and so on. His tastes in nineteenth century art were no less discerning. He owned ten statues by Story, making him the sculptor’s most devoted collector.

Orpheus was a Thracian poet, famed for his musical skill which could charm wild animals. When his wife, the wood nymph Eurydice, was killed by a snake whilst fleeing an unwanted suitor, he descended into Hades and, by the beauty of his playing, persuaded Pluto to allow Eurydice to return on condition that he did not look back at her until they reached the upper world. Orpheus could not help himself looking and Eurydice was lost forever.

Unlike other famous sculptures of Orpheus which Story would have surely known such as that by Canova (which depicts the poet in torment at the moment of his weakness), or by Thomas Crawford (who portrays him peering down into the depths of Hades), here Orpheus is envisioned before his terrible torment. The pose and expression are relaxed and noble, the anatomy young and strong. Only the tiny lizard creeping up the tree stump gives us a suggestion of the power of the poet’s lyre which will bring him so close to saving his true love. 

The unusual signature which features an Ankh symbol and acronym RY probably had specific resonances to Story or his patron Pálffy; associations which they may even have shared. Story was a Philo-Semitic scholar, with a deep knowledge of Hebrew and Latin. It has been suggested by Dr Kathy Lawrence (written communication) that the combination of the Ankh cypher (symbolic of immortality) and the letters RY may refer to the kingship of Yahweh (the early Jewish name for God). Lawrence also posits that there could be a deeper Christian meaning, in that Orpheus travelled to the underworld and returned, just as Christ died on the Cross, only to be resurrected. Whatever the precise meanings behind the present sculpture, the signature block is unprecedented in the sculptor’s oeuvre, indicating a deliberate and specific significance.

W. H. Gerdts, ‘William Wetmore Story’, American Art Journal, November 1972, pp. 16-33; W. Craven, Sculpture in America, New York, 1968, pp.274-281; J. Seidler Ramirez, ‘William Wetmore Story’, American Figurative Sculpture in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, 1986, pp. 107-109

19th and 20th Century Sculpture Including Highlights from the MEAM Collection: Part I