Pliny the Younger and his Mother at Misenum, 79 A.D., Angelica Kaufmann, 1785. Oil on canvas: 103 x 127.5 cm (40 9/16 x 50 3/16 in.)  Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ via

As Mount Vesuvius erupts in the distance, the young Pliny continues his studies at his family’s villa—despite being urged to flee. Meanwhile, his uncle, Pliny the Elder, is sailing toward Vesuvius and will die trying to rescue a friend. Pliny’s letters comprise one of the great records of the catastrophe that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. In one, he tells of being able to “hear the wails of women, the cries of children, the shouts of men … others were reaching to the gods … others declared the gods no more.”

This is one of three large-scale history paintings Angelica Kauffmann produced in Italy in 1785 for a Mr. Bowles, an English patron. As was noted when the work was first exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1786, Pliny has two left feet. The reason for this may be that Kauffmann, then among the most popular artists in Rome, evidently relied on her less talented husband, Antonio Zucchi, to complete many of her commissions.

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The eruption of Mount Vesuvius began on this date, August 24, in 79 C.E. The towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by tons of pumice, ash, and mud over a period of 25 hours. It is estimated that 13,000 people perished as a result of the eruption.