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Overview

Among the most memorable characters in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's hugely popular novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) is Nydia, a blind flower seller. In love with the noble-born Glaucus, who is engaged to Ione, Nydia knows the hopelessness of her position and endures her suffering with quiet courage. On the fateful day in A.D. 79 when Vesuvius erupts and buries Pompeii, Nydia attempts to lead Glaucus and Ione to safety through the darkness caused by the falling ash. In the crush of the fleeing crowds, the three become separated, and Nydia desperately seeks to find the others. As Bulwer-Lytton wrote:

 . . . it occurred to Nydia, that as it had been resolved to seek the seashore for escape, her most probable chance of rejoining her companions would be to persevere in that direction. Guiding her steps, then, by the staff which she always carried, she continued, with incredible dexterity, to avoid the masses that encumbered her path—to thread the streets—and unerringly (so blessed was that accustomed darkness, so afflicting in ordinary life) to take the nearest direction to the sea-side. Poor girl! her courage was beautiful to behold! and Fate seemed to favor one so helpless. The boiling torrents touched her not . . . but spared that frail form . . . Weak, exposed, yet fearless, supported by but one wish, she was the very emblem of Psyche in her wanderings . . . of Hope, walking through the Valley of the Shadow; a very emblem of the Soul itself—alone but comforted, amid the dangers and snares of life. [1]

Nydia ultimately does rejoin and save Glaucus and Ione, but realizing that her love will never be fulfilled, drowns herself in despair. Randolph Rogers was one of the most gifted of the many American sculptors who lived and worked in Italy during the nineteenth century. Like other neoclassical sculptors of the day, he sought subjects that would allow him to demonstrate an accomplished handling of the human form and technical understanding of the medium of marble, but which would also convey a strong moral message. Just a decade earlier Hiram Powers had gained fame and fortune with his Greek Slave (1843), skillfully blending the allure of a full-length female nude with a narrative text that stressed her chasteness and piety. With Nydia, Rogers followed a similar path, for although she is clothed, those familiar with the story would have delighted in the mix of sensual longing and doomed love. Furthermore, unlike Powers' Greek Slave, who stands motionless, Rogers' Nydia is dramatically animated. She is shown hurrying, hand to ear, listening for directional clues, as her drapery streams around her body and flutters behind her. In a particularly beautiful passage, Rogers arranged the clothing folded around her staff and cascading down below it. At her side a fallen Corinthian capital reminds the viewer of the death and destruction that surrounds her as she flees.

Nydia was a great success for Rogers, achieving a popularity rivaled by few contemporary sculptures and ultimately earning him more than $70,000. [2] In accord with accepted practice, Rogers first completed a full-size plaster model, which then served as the basis for marble versions that were cut and finely polished by skilled Italian masons. Smaller examples, measuring only 36 inches, and much less costly, were also made in substantial numbers, spreading the sculpture's fame far and wide. Full-scale versions such as this are far less common, and rank with Powers' Greek Slave and William Wetmore Story's Cleopatra as key works of American nineteenth-century sculpture.

(Text by Franklin Kelly, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)

Notes

1. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, <i>The Last Days of Pompeii</i> (New York, 1850), 379.2. "Randolph Rogers, the Sculptor," in <i>Harper's Weekly</i> 12 (6 February 1892), 465. Cited by Millard F. Rogers Jr. in <i>Randolph Rogers, American Sculptor in Rome</i> (Amherst, Mass., 1971), 40.

Inscription

on side of capital at figure's feet: RANDOLPH ROGERS / ROME 1860.

Provenance

Eugene Leone, New York; (Spanierman Gallery, New York); purchased 17 July 2000 by NGA.

Exhibition History
2000
Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
2008
Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2008-2009, no. 125, repro. (shown only in Washington).
Bibliography
1970
Rogers, Millard. "Nydia, Popular Victorian Image." Antiques 97, no. 3 (March 1970): 374-377.
1971
Rogers, Millard. Randolph Rogers: American Sculptor in Rome. Amherst, Massachusetts, 1971: 33-40, 96, 200-204.
1973
Gerdts, William H. American Neo-Classic Sculpture: The Marble Resurrection. New York, 1973: 34-35, 120-121, fig. 136 (another example).
1993
Schiller, Joyce K. "Nydia: A Forgotton Icon of the Nineteenth Century." Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 67, no. 4 (1993): 36 fig. 1 (another example), 37-45.
2000
Lessing, Lauren Keach. "'So Blessed Now That Accustomed Darkness": Randolph Rogers's Nydia: The Blind Girl of Pompeii and the Female Gaze." Bulletin, The University of Michigan Museums of Art and Archaeology 13 (2000-2001): 53-73, 53 fig. 1 (another example).