Art triumphs over fate

Henry James said, “One is touched to tears by this particular example which comes home to one so – of the jolly great truth that it is art alone that triumphs over fate.”

He was talking about the bronze tomb effigy of his friend, Elizabeth Boott Duveneck, that adorns her grave in Florence, where she died at age 41. He wrote about her and her home in Florence in his novels, Portrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl.

A marble version of the tomb effigy was commissioned by her father for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The effigy was made by her husband Frank Duveneck, as was the portrait of her, which hangs in the Cincinnati Art Museum. Click below to enlarge.

“The Last Day of Pompeii” is a painting done in 1833 by the Russian artist Karl Briullov. He had visited Pompeii in 1828 and was inspired by the subject of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., which had destroyed the city and entombed its surprised residents in ash.


When the Pompeii site was excavated, plaster casts were made of the cavities in ash left by the decomposed bodies of the trapped citizens, revealing their fate, i.e. how they were posed at the moment of their deaths.

Briullov exhibited his huge painting (21′ x 15′) in Rome to great acclaim, garnering attention that was unprecedented for a Russian artist abroad. He never made anything else that approached this success.

The painting inspired Alexander Pushkin to write a poem about it and Edward Bulwer-Lytton to write a novel, “The Last Days of Pompeii”, published in 1834. The book was very popular and had many memorable characters, including Glaucus, a handsome Athenian nobleman; Ione, a beautiful Greek aristocrat engaged to marry Glaucus; and Nydia, a young slave kidnapped from high-born parents who sells flowers to get money for her owners.

Nydia is blind and in love with Glaucus, but keeps silent about this because she knows he’s taken. When Vesuvius erupts, Nydia tries to lead Glaucus and Ione to safety, using her heightened sense of hearing, more useful than sight in the ashy chaos. She loses the two at one point, but somehow finds them again and ultimately leads them out. In the end, her unrequited love for Glaucus causes her to commit suicide.

The story of Nydia inspired Randolph Rogers to sculpt this piece in 1859, called “Nydia, the Blind Girl of Pompeii”.


Rogers’ work became the most popular American sculpture of the nineteenth century and was replicated 167 times in two sizes, according to him, with many fewer of the full sized version. He did this by making a full-size plaster model, and then having skilled Italian masons cut and polish new examples based on the model.

Several important museums have a version, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The National Gallery of Art in Washington, The Art Institute of Chicago, and The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I took the below picture of the MFA version yesterday with my phone, which may explain the poor quality.

Nydia (2)

Since 2012, admirers of Nydia in the MFA are often struck by the painting on the wall next to her, which is entitled “Museum Epiphany  III”, done in a photorealist style by Warren Prosperi. It shows museum goers admiring art in the very gallery where the painting is hung. The woman at the left of the frame would be looking at the picture she’s in.


So, to review: the eruption of Vesuvius and the excavations of Pompeii in the mid-eighteenth century inspired Briullov to create a brilliant painting, which inspired Bulwer-Lytton to write a widely read book, which inspired Randolph Rogers to make a greatly admired sculpture, which inspired Warren Prosperi to paint an extremely interesting picture, which inspired me to write this today.

This may or may not be what James meant by the triumph of art over fate, but it’s fun to think about it.


2 thoughts on “Art triumphs over fate”

  1. Pompeii has always been fascinating to me and, as you show, inspiring. Both my boys enjoyed the (I think it was) Magic Treehouse kids’ version of the event. Nice to think that inspiration is contagious. Thanks.


  2. Thanks for this reflection! I saw the traveling Pompeii exhibit a couple of years ago and was very moved by it and the art that was inspired by that strange and tragic event. While I do not agree with James that it is art *alone* that triumphs over fate, I do believe that art is a powerful expression that can accomplish this remarkable feat. Love also transports us into such a triumph…perhaps art that is fueled by love has the greatest power of all!


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