William Couper enjoyed a successful career as a sculptor of allegorical subjects, portraits, public monuments, and architectural decoration in the years spanning the last quarter of the nineteenth century and carrying over into the twentieth. Born in Virginia, a son of the Confederacy, he studied in New York and Munich and made his career in Florence, Italy, where he married the daughter and only child of the Yankee-Bostonian-expatriate sculptor, Thomas Ball (1819–1911). Couper’s public works are still visible today at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, for which he executed fourteen busts of scientists; in Annapolis, Maryland, where his Sailor’s Monument is on the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy; and in Norfolk, Virginia, his home town, where his statue of the Confederate Soldier stood atop the Confederate Monument.
The future sculptor was born in 1853 in Norfolk, Virginia, five years after his father founded a business, the Couper Marble Works, importing and carving stone for monuments and construction. The boy grew up playing in the marble yard behind the family house. (The marble business continued to be family-owned until 1981.) William’s grandfather, a weaver, had arrived in Norfolk from Scotland in 1801. Working first as a baker, he became a merchant and prospered in the busy port town. William grew up in comfortable surroundings, with a home in Norfolk, and a farm outside of town on the banks of the Elizabeth River at Hampton Roads, where he is said to have watched the Civil War battle between the ironclad warships, the Monitor and the Merrimac).
When Couper was a teenager, he tried his hand at modeling and discovered his vocation, inspired in this audacious ambition by the example of a previous self-taught Norfolk native, the sculptor Alexander Galt (1827–1863). Soon thereafter, at the age of eighteen, he attempted a cameo, which was widely admired and attracted the attention of Edward Valentine (1838–1930), a Richmond, Virginia, sculptor, who encouraged his work and became his mentor.
Couper’s family had the money and the sympathetic understanding of his career choice to encourage the young man. In 1872, the family sent him to study at the Cooper Union Art Institute in New York. When he was advised to advance his studies in Europe, he consulted Valentine, and decided to go to Germany, where Valentine had received his European training. Couper sailed in 1874, supplied with ample funds and letters of introduction. He stopped in Bremen and Dresden, and then continued on to Munich, enrolling at the Academy of Fine Arts. In Munich, Couper modeled from life, and improved his knowledge of human anatomy by attending lectures at the medical school with John McKowen, an American friend who was then a medical student and would soon play a pivotal role in Couper’s career. The Munich Academy emphasized painting and drawing. After a year, Couper received a diploma, and decided to move on to a more agreeable climate where there was greater opportunity to study sculpture. Weighing Paris and Italy, he chose the latter, knowing that he would see first-hand the sculptures of the ancient world and expecting that he could find further instruction among the members of the expatriate community of American sculptors in Florence.
Couper found a generous welcome from the Americans in Florence. Joel Tanner Hart (1810–77), a native of Kentucky who had worked in Florence since 1849, offered the use of his studio. Longworth and Preston Powers, the sons of the late Hiram Powers, asked him to dinner. Soon thereafter, Preston Powers (1843–1904), who specialized in portrait sculptures, invited Couper to share his studio. Couper was sociable and soon became part of the American expatriate community. By the time that Couper moved in with the family of Thomas Ball, the young man was at the epicenter of the American expatriate artists’ community. Ball was a native of Boston, who had established himself in Florence in 1854. He and his wife Ellen and their daughter, Eliza Chickering Ball, lived in a comfortable house, Villa Ball, near the Powers family. The Ball family was generous, energetic, and musical, organizing a steady series of musical and theatrical activities. (Ball had earned a living as a professional singer in Boston before he turned to sculpture.) When Couper arrived in Florence, Daniel Chester French was living with the family and studying with Ball (an anomaly, since Ball did not generally take students). When he left, Couper took his place.
In May, 1878, Couper married Ball’s only child, Eliza Chickering Ball. The Couper and Ball families remained in Italy until 1897. Both sculptors made regular trips home to cultivate patrons and supervise the installation of their sculptural works. William and Eliza Couper had three sons. Mrs. Ellen Ball died in 1901 and was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Florence. In 1897, Couper and Ball returned to the United States. They purchased a brownstone building on East 17th Street to use as a studio and as a venue for the kind of social evenings that they had hosted in Florence, with Eliza Couper as the gracious hostess. The family also built an Italian-Style villa on Upper Mountain Avenue in Montclair, New Jersey, a street of substantial homes. It was modeled on a neighbor’s house in Florence and named, by the family, “Poggioridente.” Couper’s later American career was successful, marked by major commissions for public monuments as well as portrait busts of well-known figures. In 1904, Couper served, with John LaFarge, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Stanford White on the advisory committee for decorative arts for the New York exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. Couper and Ball worked together on a number of commissions. William Couper retired from sculpture in 1913, two years after the death of his father-in-law. In the last years of his life he turned to landscape painting and was a founder of the Montclair Art Museum.