In September the NCMA acquired a long-lost masterpiece of American sculpture. William Wetmore Story’s monumental marble statue Saul under the Influence of the Evil Spirit created an international sensation when it was first exhibited in 1865. It was immediately bought by an English aristocrat for his palatial country house in the Cotswolds. There it remained for more than 150 years, unknown to the wider world—until now.
William Wetmore Story, Saul under the Influence of the Evil Spirit, modeled 1858–63; carved 1864–65, marble with original marble base in three sections, H. 64 x W. 34 x D. 64 1/2 in; base: H. 34 1/2 x W. 39 1/4 x D. 68 3/4 in., North Carolina Museum of Art, Gift of Anne Faircloth and Frederick Beaujeu-Dufour in honor of John W. Coffey
When cleaned and installed in the West Building galleries—probably in late spring—Story’s brooding figure of the enthroned Israelite king will add regal grandeur to the Museum’s collection of American art. It is sure to become one of the NCMA’s iconic works.
William Brady, William Wetmore Story, circa 1865–80
For most of the second half of the 19th century, William Wetmore Story (1819–1895) reigned as the dean of the large community of American artists in Rome. The son of a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Story abandoned a promising law career to pursue the far less certain profession of sculptor. He settled in Rome—the mecca for marble sculptors of his day. His apartment in the Palazzo Barberini became a favorite meeting place for Anglo-American artists and writers, including close friends Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, who would become his reluctant biographer. Hawthorne so admired Story’s brooding Cleopatra that he featured it in The Marble Faun (1860), his novel about American expatriate artists in the Eternal City. The artist’s reputation was firmly established when Cleopatra and The Libyan Sibyl were exhibited to loud acclaim at the great International Exhibition in London in 1862.
On Level A in East Building, visitors can now view, on a limited schedule, public conservation work on the monumental statue before it goes on view in West Buidling in 2019.
As a sculptor, Story arrived at just the right moment. The parade of neoclassical marble sculptors who followed after the great Antonio Canova—a parade that included Americans Thomas Crawford, Horatio Greenough, Hiram Powers, and Randolph Rogers—had too often produced charmless figures in which sentiment substituted for human feeling . In contrast, wrote Henry James, “Story was frankly and forcibly romantic, and with a highly cultivated quality in his romance; so that he penetrated the imagination of his public as nobody else just then could have done." James went on to stress
the narrative vigor of Story’s conceptions:
He told his tale with admirable emphasis and straightness, with a strong sense both of character and of drama, so that he created a kind of interest for the statue which had been, without competition, up to that time, reserved for the picture.
As the novelist observed, Story’s imagination was primarily literary. Besides being a sculptor, he was an accomplished poet and playwright. And like many dramatists from Shakespeare onward, he was fascinated by the darker, more complicated personalities from history, literature, and scripture. He could not have picked a personality darker and more complicated than the tormented King Saul.