The Mystery of Life

Media - 1929.8.394 - SAAM-1929.8.394_1 - 56196
Copied George Grey Barnard, The Mystery of Life, modeled 1895-1897, marble relief, 21 1414 189 12 in. (54.035.824.1 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Gellatly, 1929.8.394
Free to use

Artwork Details

The Mystery of Life
modeled 1895-1897
21 1414 189 12 in. (54.035.824.1 cm.)
left side: G.G. BARNARD
Credit Line
Gift of John Gellatly
Mediums Description
marble relief
  • Group
  • Figure group — nude
  • Allegory — life
  • Allegory — death
Object Number

Artwork Description

The Mystery of Life is one of several allegorical images of Life and Death from an urn that George Grey Barnard created to hold the ashes of the Metropolitan Opera conductor Anton Seidl. The sculptor conceived of a work that would represent both life and death. The veiled figure of Death holds the egg or embryo of life, and underneath is a poppy that refers to sleep and a lily that symbolizes resurrection. Barnard’s description of the piece reflects late nineteenth-century attitudes about the “nature” of men and women. The man, who struggles to provide for his family, resists death. The woman, however, through her role as a mother, surrenders to the inevitable as a natural part of the cycle of life.