Carved from a single block of marble, this imposing statue of a brooding queen is a fictional portrait of Semiramis (seh-MIR-ah-miss), queen of Assyria around 800 B.C. Although a historical figure, by the late 19th century Semiramis had become the stuff of legend: an ambitious woman who seized power through the murder of her husband, before being killed by her own estranged son. This view was popularized through the French philosopher Voltaire's 1784 play and the Italian composer Rossini's 1822 opera, both of which helped inspire William Wetmore Story's composition.
In his portrait of Semiramis, Story combined the monumental scale, idealized features, and classical drapery of European neoclassicism with historically accurate details of hairstyle and jewelry meant to evoke the ancient Near East. Like many 19th-century sculptors, Story made the clay maquette, or model, himself, while a team of trained Italian carvers produced the final marble sculptures under his supervision. Two versions of this statue exist: this example, made for the American collector William Blodgett, and another at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
The son of a Supreme Court justice, William Wetmore Story became one of the leading artists of an expatriate colony of American sculptors in Rome during the second half of the 19th century. He specialized in portraits of legendarily troubled women who lived lives of political intrigue and psychological and sexual drama, such as Semiramis, the doomed Egyptian queen Cleopatra, and the notorious Greek Medea, who murdered her own children.