Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii has been a highlight of the Museum since 1862. Though today she is surrounded by paintings, earlier in the twentieth century our marble Nydia kept company with a group of plaster casts—full-scale replicas of some of the most famous examples of ancient sculpture. The long tradition of making casts began when some important ancient sculptures were rediscovered, to the astonishment of the public, in the Renaissance; copies were made and disseminated to art schools throughout Europe, where they came to have a huge influence on the training of artists. By the nineteenth century, casts were routinely bought by private art collectors, and museums such as the Victoria and Albert in London began to systematically identify, copy, and install important works.
In the second half of the nineteenth century casts became an integral component of American museums seeking to illustrate the history of Western art. Not only did they provide viewers lacking the means or leisure to travel to Europe with an excellent opportunity to see canonical works of sculpture, they also allowed close analysis of details and a sense of scale not possible in photographs. No stigma was attached to these reproductions and they were prominently displayed for the education of the public in major museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Nineteenth-century donors even gave money for the specific purpose of collecting high quality casts, often commissioned and purchased in Europe, where they were made by skilled workers using piece molds from the originals that captured even the most minute details. Nydia’s setting is very different now because by the 1920s collecting practice had shifted away from reproductions to acquiring original works of art and plaster casts were no longer displayed.