If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

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). Created by Smarthistory.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.

Video transcript

(bright music) - [Beth] We're in the beautiful galleries at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. And 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 Civil War. And the version that we are looking at is from 1865 at the conclusion of the Civil War. So it's really interesting to think about this sculpture in that context. - [Tyler] It's by William Wetmore Story, whose first conception of this work was made in Europe in 1858 in clay. Storey 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 recognized the Confederacy. The other versions after that first one, which were all made '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. And 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 - [Beth] For decades, even in fact, til very recently, the question of Cleopatra's skin color has been something that both historians and the public have been interested in. - [Tyler] But if we think of her as being Greek, it's possible to understand her as having been culturally constructed as white. - [Beth] On the other hand, Egypt is in Africa. - [Tyler] So is she perhaps, for Storey, 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? 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. - [Beth] 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. And 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] The other thing that's going on in 1858, of course, is it's clear to everyone in American polity and 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. - [Beth] So this question of what will happen when the millions of people who are enslaved become free. - [Tyler] And then in that context, we could consider story is asking, are black men and women prepared to be freed men? If suddenly there are millions of freed men in the United States, who will lead them? What capacity do they have to lead themselves? - [Beth] And 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. And 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 higher empowers Greek slave. - [Tyler] It won't be until very late '62 or 1863 that you have major sculptures of recognizably black figures in American art. (upbeat music)