Portrait of Randolph Roger's 1867 Sculpture, "Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl from Pompeii". 2015
"Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl from Pompeii", is a sculpture based on a book based on a painting, and though one needn't know about the book and the painting I'll relate something about them and the sentimental romanticism of the era that birthed the sculpture. But the figure of Nydia can also be approached on its own terms, out of context, if one forgets the full-figure and concentrates on the ear, as I've done in my photos, for the hand cupping the ear is what makes the sculpture and the rest really should be excised as extraneous, except for the fact the girl is blind. All we need is that searching ear and the hand gently embracing the sound that reaches it. We don't need to know that ear, in the din, seeks the voices of loved ones in order to save them from the conflagration.
There is some lovely harried movement of Nydia's garment at the back of her marble legs as she struggles through the streets of the apocalypse of Pompeii. In respect of the book upon which this sculpture is based, the fall of Pompeii heralds the rise of Christianity, which is partly what the story of Nydia is about. The title of the statue states Nydia is of Pompeii, but she is actually from Thessaly, which the book tells us is known for its witches. Goodbye witches, bad and good, paganism and hedonism. Hello Christ.
Though Randolph Rogers did, as with so many other American neo-classical sculptors, end up an American expatriate living in Rome, the typical backing of family wealth isn't what sent him there. From Ann Arbor, Michigan, he went to New York with the hope his ability as as sculptor would get him work as an engraver. When that didn't happen he found a job as a clerk in a dry-goods store. Rogers had some really good friends in his employers. When they discovered his talent for sculpting, they were the ones who loaned him the money to continue exploring his ability and packed him off to Rome, in 1848, where he studied under Lorenzo Bartolini. He opened his own studio in 1851, and remained in Rome the rest of his life. He was elected to the Accademia di San Luca, and was knighted by King Umberto I in 1884. Italy was good to Randolph Rogers.
The sculpture of Nydia was born in 1853-54, when he was just under 30, his first large-scale work having been the biblical Ruth presented as gleaning. "Ruth Gleaning" may as well be titled, "Nydia, when she was kneeling and gleaning, before she stood and walked and became a blind flower girl". They are much alike. Both statues expose the woman's right breast for no reason at all except to have a flash of tantalizing neo-classical bosom. Both wear the same classical style attire of the flowing gown drawn in at the waist. The two women even look very much alike with near identical waves in their hair, though Nydia's is pulled back into a loose knot while Ruth's hair is pulled back but is relaxed down over her left shoulder. The same model may have served for both.
Public Domain image of "Ruth Gleaning" from the Metmuseum
The statue only ostensibly has to do with Ruth gleaning wheat. Overtly, the statue is an excuse for showing the sculptor's skill at drapery, and a feminine attribute.
The High Museum's description of Nydia, given below, presents her as valorous.
This work was inspired by a character in English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s popular 1834 novel, The Last Days of Pompeii. Rogers depicted Nydia in a moment of overt power—escaping from the erupting Mount Vesuvius and searching for her lost loved ones. As a symbol of feminine sacrifice and bravery, the sculpture greatly appealed to a Victorian public. Nydia became Rogers’s best-known work and the most popular American full-length statue of its time. The sculptor’s journal recorded fifty-two orders for the work between 1867 and 1888.
It's a feel-good presentation of the facts of the fiction. There is much more to the story of Nydia and what becomes a senseless self-sacrifice (the self-sacrificial woman is so popular).
First there was the painting of "The Last Day of Pompeii", done by Russian artist Karl Bryullov in the years 1830-1833. It was exhibited immediately. Italy and Russia loved it. Ivan Turgenev loved it. Gogol loved it. Alexander Pushkin loved it. France was cool on it. Despite France being unenthusiastic, he was the first Russian painter to gain international acclaim, and what this means is people already liked Hollywood extravaganzas, for the painting is a deftly-executed blockbuster of a climactic scene of civilization crashing, with fiery dragon's breath, around the ears of a number of very deftly-executed people. In the middle of which was a young woman, spot-lit, lying flat on her back on the ground with not just one but two breasts exposed by environmental violence--because stories of distant ages and places so easily accommodated such visual interests, they must have even been expected. Pompeii was then under active excavation and people were interested in all things Pompeii, as they are today, and for good reason. It was a a hit of a subject for Bryullov who visited Pompeii and studied its history. He put in the effort and it paid off to the extent, though he was unable apparently to complete another "great" work, he did portraits for Russian aristocrats the rest of his life.
Public Domain image of "The Fall of Pompeii"
On the heels of the painting followed the novelization, The Last Days of Pompeii, written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton who had seen the painting on exhibit in Italy in 1834.
Lytton was a bad guy in the way Charles Dickens was a bad guy. Both presented themselves one way to the public, but in their private lives they were ruthless, abusive, and attempted to ruin their wives. A radical who would later turn conservative, born into wealth, Lytton seemed to risk abandoning some privilege when he married the Irish Rosina, whose mother was a feminist, and was initially refused his allowance by his mother, but not ultimately his inheritance. He and Rosina had two children. He was a womanizer. He had affairs. He emotionally abused her. He physically assaulted her. He kicked her in the stomach when she was pregnant. They separated within five years. The separation meant that Rosina was denied her children. Lytton gained in power and status. He squashed her novels and career as an author. He threatened her allowance. He had her watched, hoping to discover her in an affair by which he could divorce her--and such a divorce was catastrophic to a woman. Nearly fifteen years passed, in the space of which Rosina hadn't been permitted to see their daughter, Emily, in ten years, Lytton having kept her in boarding schools and refusing to let Rosina know where she was. As Emily lay dying of Typhus in a boarding house that Lytton had lodged her in, Rosina learned of it and rushed to the unconscious Emily's side. She decried the conditions in which her ill daughter was kept and called in a specialist, but it was too late. Lytton learned Rosina was there and had her escorted away. Emily breathed her last the following day and Lytton blamed this on Rosina, his assertion being that Emily's presence in the house, though the girl was unconscious, had excited her and caused her death. The letters written by friends of Rosina's who were there and witnessed the events are tragic. Ten more years passed and, in 1858, when Lytton was about to move from being a simple member of Parliament into the position of Colonial Secretary, Rosina vociferously denounced him for the individual he was so that people would know to whom they were handing this power. He responded by having her declared insane and committed. She had status, and friends, if not much money and no property, and was availed of lawyers. She won her release. The damage was such to Lytton's reputation that he reunited her with her son, whom she'd not seen in two decades, sent them off to live in America, raised her allowance and paid off her debts. In the early twentieth century, relying only on Lytton's account, biographies of Lytton were still blaming Rosina. Despite history being unable to deny the misery Rosina suffered at Lytton's hand, in a time when women had little power, Rosina is still sometimes depicted as the bitter woman who becomes obsessed with hysterical resentment when she should have just let bygones be bygones.
Lytton and Rosina had separated in 1833, but it wasn't legalized until 1836. In 1834, Lytton wrote The Last Days of Pompeii, about a slave girl who made the ultimate sacrifice in order to let her owner begin his new life without threat of eventual resentment on her part.
The book is awful. (I read it in order to understand the statue and to thus write this.) Glaucus, a noble and handsome Athenian in Pompeii, is loved by the blind, flower-vendor Nydia, who is described throughout as a fragile "child", at most a preadolescent and perhaps even shy that. Nydia, kidnapped from Thessaly as a very young child, was sold into slavery. She's not an entrepreuner street urchin. She's on the streets selling for her master, who takes all her earnings and beats her. Glaucus befriends Nydia, and purchases the child in order to save her from this abuse. He then falls in love with the beautiful and very rich and chaste Ione, who loves him in return. Much nonsense ensues that is best skipped over. When Mount Vesuvius blows up all over hedonistic Pompeii, no one else can see in the smoke and gloom, but Nydia is used to not seeing. She keeps her wits together and saves both Glaucus and Ione, getting them to the port where they all board a boat and take to the terrifying red-black sea with other refugees. As soon as Nydia knows they are all safe, she kisses her beloved benefactor as he sleeps, and rather than live with her love for him, that she knows will become bitter resentment as he doesn't love her in return, after wishing him happiness with Ione, and hoping he will sometimes remember her, she slips quietly overboard in an unobserved act of suicide. Years pass. Glaucus and Ione turn to Christianity. They construct a tomb in Nydia's honor, and Glaucus daily remembers her fidelity.
The novel was very popular. Reviews were glowing. Lytton wrote a number of novels and people loved them. Though he's an unknown now, his fame once exceeded that of Charles Dickens.
Nydia was not the breasty young woman depicted in Rogers' sculpture. Nydia did not sacrifice herself saving her masters, Glaucus and Ione. True, she could very well have died saving them, but she didn't. She got them to a boat that carries them away from Pompeii. It's likely that, as a slave, she might not have been accepted on the boat without them, but that's not an issue here. She rescues them and they are all safe on the boat, and as they ride off into a new life, rather than risk any prospect of her love turning into a resentment that might cause her to hurt Lytton (oops, Glaucus) in the future--Lytton compels her to commit suicide. That is the compelling act of self-sacrifice for which Nydia was loved by Victorian society, as sold by Lytton who perhaps wished Rosina would just go ahead and commit suicide. When it's said Nydia was "a symbol of feminine sacrifice and bravery", that's not exactly true, or not exactly true in any acceptable way. She was certainly brave, but she survived. Then she killed herself because she didn't want to risk her love turning into a resentment that would end in hurting Glaucus. Lytton sold to the Victorians, and they purchased, a heroic model of an ardent woman (infatuated child) as being one who killed themselves so they couldn't possibly become a bitter bother.
And that's the story of Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl from Pompeii.
Written Feb 2020
The High Museum's page on Nydia
Another of my photos of Nydia
The sculpture was a gift of the West Foundation in honor of Gudmund Vigtel, director of the High Museum from 1963 thru 1991, and Michael E. Shapiro, director at the High Museum from 2000 to 2015.
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