Arrant Nonsense, Art, History, Removing Statues, Revisionist History, Sculpture, statue, Waterloo, William Seward

Learning All About History by Looking at Statues. Chapter VI. A Hometown Hero.

Chap VI.

Our next statue was chosen because its sculptor was from my hometown.

I wanted to discuss the intellectual and aesthetic question “Why is this artist’s most famous work, the most-replicated statue by an America sculptor, during the 19th century, like a chronic sinus infection?”

The answer to the question:  Drip, drip, drip.

I’ll explain the dripping in just a sec.

I am from Waterloo, NY.

If you ask people in my village, the only famous person from here is a football coach, named Coughlin (pronounced just like you’d think, like a cat with a hairball).

Runner-up for local history buffs, is a guy named Gridley, who invented an improved washboard (not kidding, it was curved).

The back of the village garage, which faces a defunct grocery store, and a crumbling, unusable bridge, has a mural, showing Murray & Welles, who began the village’s Memorial Day observances in 1866.

Then one day, by chance, I found out that one of the most successful American sculptors of the 19th Century was born here.

Not only is there no statue of him in Waterloo, but in all seriousness, I’ve never once heard his name mentioned in his birthplace.

It’s Randolph Rogers.  Born 6 July 1825.

You can see his works in parks, galleries, and the better sort of cemeteries in NYC, Hartford, Gettysburg, Cincinnati, Detroit, Richmond, Philadelphia, Washington, etc.

His “Columbus Doors,” all 20,000 pounds of them, are the main entrance to the U.S Capitol.  They’re an homage to Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance masterpiece, the “Gates of Paradise” in Florence.

Randolph Roger’s versions are 17′ tall, and depict everyday life in Columbus, Ohio, during a political convention.


One one door, a stylized border of venial sins surrounds panels with scenes of graft, extortion, lobbying, malfeasance, pettyfogging, etc. while the other door depicts the politicians’ torments in the afterlife.

Rogers created statues and busts of Adams, Lincoln, William Seward, General Lew Wallace (of “Ben Hur” fame), and allegorical figures like “The Genius of Connecticut” for the top of their statehouse.  (This last one was later re-named “We’re All Above Average” and then melted down for scrap during WWII.)

His Civil War monuments include the Soldiers’ National Monument at Gettysburg.

The Seward statue is in Madison Square Park, in NYC, and was the subject of a scurrilous rumor that Rogers re-purposed a leftover Lincoln body and stuck on a Seward head.  It’s simply not true.  The proportions are fine – Seward just had a small head, relative to his body and nose.

(Henry Adams wrote that he had “a head like a wise macaw.“)


And replicas of one of Roger’s statues are in almost every big art gallery in the country.

The work is called “Nydia

It was the most popular American sculpture of the 19th Century.

Nydia is based on a character in a book called “The Last Days of Pompeii” (1834).

The author, Bulwer-Lytton, was a politican-novelist, and poet-playwright.  It’s all about hyphens with this guy.

The book was a huge hit.

And it’s absolutely unreadable.  I know that, because I tried.  Really.  Cannot be done.

I mean, I have an exceptionally high tolerance for tedium.  I can show you my survivor badge for “One Thousand PowerPoint Presentations” and once, I stayed awake for 3 ½ minutes of “Twilight.”  But this book – –  I lasted one page.

Here’s the beginning:

’HO, Diomed, well met!  Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?’ said a young man of small stature, who wore his tunic in those loose and effeminate folds which proved him to be a gentleman and a coxcomb.”

Doesn’t that just make you long for a dark & stormy night, so you could kill the author before he writes anything else?

“Sup with Glaucus”??  Why no, I finally got a prescription for Amoxicillin and that cleared up that supping Glaucus, boy, I’m glad to be done with all that Mucus and Phlegma.

But it turns out, Glaucus is not a medical condition, it is the hero.  And he and Nydia live in Pompeii.

And also a type of sea gull, I looked it up in Wikipedia.  “The glaucous gull (Larus hyperboreus)…the second largest gull in the world. which breeds in Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere and winters south to shores of the Holarctic.”

I remember thinking that you might want to know that, but now I don’t know why.

(Didn’t you think for sure, Glaucus was a sinus or eye infection?)

One more sentence, and you’re done.

Well, you must sup with me some evening;  I have tolerable muraenae in my reservoir, and I ask Pansa the aedile to meet you.”

Well, sure, I’d love to sup, unless some clever blacksmith has invented tines, and then we could just eat with forks, like grownups, and stop all this supping crap.

Um, aedile is a type of Roman magistrate?  And I found, with a dawning sense of horror, that muraena is a type of Mediterranean moray.

So this idiot  is bragging that his reservoir is infested with eels ?? and no doubt we’re going to be supping up jellied eels for dinner??  and why is this paired with the magistrate??  Unless it’s the politician/slimy eel thing??


I misplaced my notes – – this is either a still from the 1913 silent film “Last Days of Pompeii,” or a current cabinet meeting in Washington.


It’s a long, convoluted lava flow of melodrama — Greeks, Romans, Christians, the Cult of Isis, love potions, a witch, and eels.

Most of the characters are wiped out by the volcano, but not nearly soon enough.

Pompeii is depicted as a warped and decadent place, and yet, not fun.  If anyone tried to get a good bacchanalia going, I’m sure Bulwer-Lytton threw a wet toga over it.  His artistic conceit was clearly to deep-fry every sentence into agonized contortions, to mirror the bodies found in the ashes of Pompeii.

Better to dig up roasted Romans than by buried in this book – I never made it past the first page.

So anyway.

The book was a huge hit.

It was 1834.  In three years, if you’d finished the book, Victoria would begin her reign, and you’d have 63 years, seven months, and two days of additional dullness ahead of you.

In the U.S., free from monarchies and elitist literature, we were celebrating Jacksonian Democracy and getting ready for bank failures, 25% unemployment, and a 7-year long recession.

Most of this wasn’t Bulwer-Lytton’s fault, but he didn’t help.

So…some years after all that, I was in the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY and ran across a statue of “The Toothache”.

(That was my guess, anyway.)

At her feet rests the broken capital of a Corinthian column, symbolizing an impacted wisdom tooth.



It turned out to be an 1861 work by Randolph Rogers, inspired by the book, depicting Nydia, as she guides Glaucus through the eruption and ash-storm that was engulfing Pompeii, towards the harbor.

There he would be safe, and have lots of lovely eels to eat.

Her mission accomplished, Nydia then continues on, into the Mediterranean.  I don’t remember why, unrequited love I think, but she drowns, or maybe the eels get her, but she definitely dies.

It’s all very tragic, because she didn’t drag Glaucus and Bulwer-Lytton with her.  Somebody should have tied them all together and dropped them off a pier, attached to a Corinthian column.

I think Nydia washes up again, in the epilogue.

So, somehow, Randolph Rogers was inspired to depict Nydia, pre-drowning, but already drippy.

The statue was a huge hit.

It’s displayed in the big galleries in NYC, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, L.A., and a whole lot more places.

In fact, Rogers replicated it 167 times (seriously).

Rogers didn’t actually chisel all these himself, of course.  He had a workshop in Italy, where workmen cranked these out for Culture Tourists, in the days when a souvenir was a souvenir, and before snow globes were invented.

Here’s a mention in “A History of European and American Sculpture” by Chandler Rathon Post (1921):

“Randolph Rogers never found his vein.  He tried his hand with tolerable results at several kinds of sculpture, but all his many productions suffer from a blight of dullness…his portrait statues…are fairly respectable performances in stiff rhetoric.”

Well, quite likely, you think I’m all wet, and ignorant, and that Nydia is a lovely statue.  They have one in the Memorial Art Gallery, the National Art Gallery, the Met, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Chicago Institute of Art, I’m tripping over this thing where ever I go.

But to my uneducated, rustic eye, it looks awkward, and a bit odd.


Like someone you’d feel bad for, if you ran across her downtown, and probably kind of avoid, because she’s hunched and her dress is half-off, and then you’d feel terrible, when it dawned on you that she was blind, and you weren’t sure if she was trying to cross the street, or if she was aware of her wardrobe malfunction, and depending on the angle, she’s either suffering from toothache, or is listening for something, like maybe an oncoming bus, or chariot, so you’d have to go back and hesitantly ask if she would like assistance in crossing the street, and she says, no, thank you, I’m actually listening for a volcanic eruption.  And until Mount Vesuvius actually blows, you’d think she was delusional, and should you call social services or something, the whole thing is awkward.

Oh, I forgot to mention that.  The character was blind.  The full title is “Nydia, The Blind Flower-Girl of Pompeii”.


She’s not identified as such, but pretty sure this is Nydia, from the 1913 silent movie “The Last Days of Pompeii” (Library of Congress)


It’s an interesting example of how tastes change.  I don’t know if most people today, would be crazy for the statue, or the book.  I’ve yet to find anyone who’s actually read Bulwer-Lytton.  Because I’ve asked a lot of random people at airports, bus stops, restrooms, and bars, and only gotten funny looks.  Apparently he’s really not popular anymore.


(Do you know he added a third Lytton to his name?  Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton.  Because having it only twice, you might forget??  Or to distract people from “Bulwer”?)

(Today, “Bulwer-Lytton-Lytton-Lytton Disorder is better known as “Compulsive Redundancy Syndrome.”)

Most of us tend to remember and focus on the good stuff.  In the 1830’s, people were reading “Oliver Twist,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Lady of Shalott,” etc.  But just like our own time, people consumed lots of not-so-wonderful stuff.

Maybe that’s the value of looking at “Pompeii” and “Nydia”  – – for contrast, and to show just how wonderful the good writers and artists were.  To remind ourselves, just how exceptional Dickens, Poe, Shelley, Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Byron, Emerson, Delacroix, etc. were.  In 1861, when the statue was unveiled, there were other horrible things happening, like Fort Sumter and the Battle of Bull Run, but there was also Church’s “The Icebergs,” Whistler’s “Symphony in White, No. 1,”  Manet’s “Music in the Tuileries,” and Leutze’s “Westward Ho!” so Rogers can’t use the Civil War as an excuse.

Nydia is shown as she guides some Pompeii people through the blinding volcanic ash-cloud to safety – the man she loves, his girlfriend, and some really insistent people hawking postcards.  That’s admirable, and that’s why she’s holding her hand to her ear.

Although I still think, she could have had a toothache, too, right?  and that’s why she drowned herself, not the unrequited love thing.

The museum sign informs us, that the statue is evocative.  But would you have understood the situation, if I hadn’t told you? That she’s listening for which way an exploding volcano is located?  If she were a Labrador, would you guess that someone was blowing a dog whistle?  Or figure, poor doggy, has a toothache.

Well, we’re all learning a lot from these statues, aren’t we.

And anyway, Randolph Rogers was born in my hometown, he was knighted by King Umberto I, and Art is in the eye of the beholder.  So is glaucoma, I did look it up, and it’s related to Glaucus, but I forget how.  Something to do with seagulls.


Excavation of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii (Wellcome Library)


P.S.  Glaucus, glaucoma, and the seagull really are all related!  But this post is way too long already.


An earlier, and I think, much nicer work, “Ruth Gleaning” (1850).  As in the Book of Ruth in the Bible, and “gleaning” as in gathering up leftover barley.




And one final piece, “The Last Arrow” (1880) – – I wonder if his fellow Upstater, Frederic Remington, saw this, since it predates his bronzes by fifteen years.  These two pictures are from the Met website.


















31 thoughts on “Learning All About History by Looking at Statues. Chapter VI. A Hometown Hero.

    • I had forgotten that about Austin – – a few years ago, I looked up every place in the U.S. named, or formerly named, Waterloo. There’s quite a few. (And I was just kidding about the original being in France).
      You might know this anecdote – the Duke of Wellington supposedly said “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” (I always assumed that meant, that after the viciousness of a rugby match, a French cannonade was nothing. But rugby wasn’t invented until after the battle.)
      Eton’s playing fields are visible from the walls of Windsor Castle, and supposedly, someone heard a guide at the castle, telling the tourists “And down there’s the playing fields of Eton, where the Battle of Waterloo was fought.”


  1. Fabulous! This is history as I never knew it. Side note on “Waterloo”. The Eurostar train used to go from London, via the Chunnel, to Paris Gard du Nord. But the French were not happy about the Waterloo significance and put the pressure on the Brits to change the station which they did and now it is somewhere in North London near Euston or St. Pancras.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can think of a few torments I’d like to see inflicted on the current crop of politicians, perhaps I should design a new door (if I could actually draw). There should be a special one for “pettifogging”, simply because that’s such a cool word. I can think of a few former managers that would deserve a torment for that too.

    Pompei must be near Florin, home of the carnivorous shrieking eels. Nydia probably knew this, but being threatened with being immortalized in an unreadable story she chose a more certain doom. Being blind, she probably didn’t notice the mountain blowing its top, it was more “Is it hot today or is it just me?”

    I suspect that even if the book was a huge hit, most folks probably just had it for show: “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” ― Mark Twain

    Liked by 1 person

    • 🙂 That’s great! Hadn’t thought of that angle – – a character wades into the sea, to escape the awful book she’s in. Bulwer-Lytton probably wondered where the heck she’d gotten to.
      I love The Princess Bride, but apparently my memory blocked out the carnivorous shrieking eels. Arrgh!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You’re quite right, she does look like a big drip. I used to feel uneasy about some of the “great” literature that I was supposed to be reading (and enjoying??). What a joyous relief it was to reach an age when I could say firmly, BAH! I’m not reading that bilge.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I take a small amount of pride in being overly familiar with the glaucous gull, having recently undertaken extensive study of the narwhal and certain other critters of the far north. But Glaucus, that’s new for me. This essay (like others you’ve written) was a controlled geyser of enjoyable insights!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Jason, glad you got a kick out of it. I have had very little time by the ocean, none in the North, and know nothing about seabirds. Couldn’t imagine what the connection might be, between glaucoma and a bird, other than once a seagull pooped in my eye. You probably know this, but the link is the original word = bluish-gray/bluish-white. And then they talked about “semantic drift” which is very cool-sounding.


  5. I think I’ve mentioned that my maternal grandfather lived in Waterloo, Iowa, and I did a good bit of roller skating through those streets as a kid. We spent some time down at the railroad roundhouse, too. Good times.

    Just for grins, I looked up the old song, “Plains of Waterloo,” and by the time about the fourth of the eighteen verses rolled around, I was feeling much as you must have with your book. There seemed to be some sort of consensus developing: the video had four “likes,” and not a single comment. It takes something special to not even get a negative comment.

    If you’d plunked that last statue in front of me, with no context, I might have said “Remington.” And I really laughed at your comment about the “better” cemeteries. I suspect all of us have come across an instance of someone memorializing above their status in life.

    I wonder if that new and improved Monarch washboard with the raised center is related to the frottoir used in zydeco music? Some Cajun/Creole bands use a traditional, wood-framed washboard, and some use the curved, or froittoir, but I don’t know the history of it. Interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The version of the song by June Tabor isn’t half bad. I didn’t recognize her name, but she used to sing with Maddy Prior (I’m a fan of Prior’s band, Steeleye Span) But there was also a version by someone named Les Baker “The Trains of Waterloo” about commuter battles:
      Dear lady I bring you the saddest of tidings
      The five-thirty train it was cancelled you see
      And Nigel not looking he went to step onto it
      Straight into the path of the five-thirty-three

      Your poor Nigel Clegg I have brought you his leg
      And so sadly she gazed at the limb she once knew
      And fondly she browsed on one half of his trousers
      Oh My Nigels not returning on the trains of Waterloo


    • Thank you, Val, and I’m glad to see you’re up & running again.
      I love The Kinks and “Waterloo Sunset,” but hadn’t seen that video before. David Bowie and Jackson Browne both did very well with that tune, too, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

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