Sabine Women

The Rape of the Sabine Women is a story that has been the subject of many an artist since Livy and Plutarch. The story itself is one of those insane fables on which our modern society is founded. After Romulus had killed his brother he invited anybody stupid enough to join him in founding the city that would become Rome. Needless to say, all sorts of vagrants, thieves, murderers, and bums showed up to take a new shot at life in his new city. Women, those most practical of creatures, were notably absent in this rabble. This bunch of misfits never could attract any, so they did the only sensible thing and decided to abduct them from a neighboring tribe, the Sabines. They invited the tribe to a religious knees-up and at Romulus’ signal they simply grabbed the women and drove the men away. (“Rape” here means stealing or kidnapping.) It’s a hell of a way to start a city, and there’s all sorts of twisted insanity in this scenario, more than enough to spur the imaginations of artists.

The first one of these depictions I bumped into at the Louvre was David‘s famous work.

Source: Wikipedia


It’s an action-packed, large canvas with a few strong points in the setting that demand attention amidst the general chaos. There’s the center figure of Hersilia and the nude combatants Romulus and Titus Tatius. It’s a “Stop the Madness!” type of thing and very dramatic and stylized. This is appropriate considering it was painted during the Reign of Terror or thereabouts. There are three participants in this scene, really: the two warring men and the women with their children in between trying to stop them. All the rest is too chaotic and senseless to become clear enough to tell who is fighting who and why. There are spears in the background, some figures with swords, and a few horses, but they don’t matter that much. It’s an homage to that space between two warring parties we often look at with indignation, to compromise and its female personification.

David’s painting is impressive, but I spent way more time looking at Poussin‘s take on the subject.

Source: Wikipedia

There is much more going on in this one. There is Romulus giving the signal, even though it’s hard to imagine that he would still be giving it since the “rape” seems to be in full swing already. There is a clear rift that goes through the field to the corridor of the city in the background. The city itself is almost empty of people, a city in dire need of population. Aside from Romulus who’s standing on some sort of pedestal, I found myself more or less dismissing individual people and focusing on more general features of the picture. There’s that empty space that tears the screen apart and leads you to the empty city, an indication of something torn in two. In stark contrast to David’s work, this is not a painting depicting a clash. It shows that something is being cut in two; men and women, the Romans and the Sabines, two warring parties are created and the site for a future clash is prepared. This is what goes on before the battle, the wrong that has to be made right with blood.

The Poussin is much older than the David. It was painted around 1637-8, but it seems like the more mature work. It brings out the horror inherent in all the plans human beings have to make and cope with when they form societies or are born into them (as we all inevitably are). David, on the other hand, seems juvenile because of the underlined symbolism seen in the figures of lore, but one has to remember that he was probably sick and tired of the horror Poussin painted since he was in the very midst of it. David’s painting is sick of looking at political turmoil, sick of violence; it is saturated with it and trying to look for something else to look at.

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