The Angel of Grief, as it is known, is one of the most iconic funerary sculptures that exist. It is also one of the most copied. The original was created by American lawyer, poet, and sculptor William Wetmore Story. The Angel of Grief would be his last major work and lovingly dedicated to his recently deceased wife, Emelyn. It captures the grief he experienced at the prospect of living without his spouse.
William Wetmore Story (1819-1895) saw an opportunity to quit practicing law and become a full-time artist. He was the son of Associate Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845) who served on the Supreme Court of the United States, also known as SCOTUS. William graduated from Harvard College and began his career in law. He was successful but unfulfilled. When his father died, William accepted an offer that changed the course of his life.
A committee set up to honor the late Justice Joseph Story wanted to commission a statue in his memory, and they asked William to create it. William was a hobbyist and accepted the commission as long as he and his family moved to Italy for him to study.
By this time, William and Emelyn nee Eldredge had married and started a family. They had two children: Edith “Edie” Marion and Joseph “Joe.” And so, the family moved to Rome, Italy where William embarked on an apprenticeship. Tragedy struck the young family when little Joe died from gastric fever on November 23, 1853. He is buried in Campo Cestio in Rome.
The family grew while William honed his craft. Thomas Waldo, born December 9, 1854, and Julian Russell, born on September 8, 1857, joined older sister Edie. (Note: All four surviving children embarked on careers in the arts: T. Waldo became an acclaimed sculptor; Julian was a famous painter; and Edit, known as the Marchesa Peruzzi di Medici, became a writer.)
Although William returned to the United States to erect the monument for his father, he would make Rome his home. During the forty years he and Emelyn resided in Italy, William created other famous sculptures and gained acclaim as a poet. They enjoyed life and each other.
Emelyn died in 1894, and William’s heart broke. He prepared and created one last sculpture: The Angel of Grief. An angel dressed in Roman attire drapes her body over the altar with her large wings slumped in despair. The sculpture personified the grief that embraced William.
William died in his sleep a year later. He is buried beneath the sculpture with the love of his life. The monument sits in Campo Cestio, also called the Protestant Cemetery or the Cemetery for the Non-Catholic Foreigners. It may be viewed during posted business hours. If you’re unable to see it in person, you can visit some of the copies in America. I cannot state if the cemetery is haunted; however, I can tell you that it has some of the most beautiful funerary monuments that I’ve ever seen in one location. It also has about 40 cats that roam the cemetery listening to classical music when the cemetery closes for the day. Well worth a visit, in our post-COVID world.
While researching this article, I wanted to find a photograph of Emelyn; however, I was unable. There are a few of William and his children who survived into adulthood, but nothing for Emelyn. That is also heartbreaking. I would love to see the woman who supported and encouraged her husband to create so many famous pieces of art, especially the most important piece that is one of his most well-known.