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David, The Intervention of the Sabine Women

Jacques-Louis David, The Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1799, Oil on canvas, 12 feet, 8 inches x 17 feet and 3/4 of an inch or 3.85 x 5.22 m (Musée du Louvre, Paris) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker


At this juncture the Sabine women, from the outrage on whom the war originated, 

with hair dishevelled and garments rent, the timidity of their sex being overcome 

by such dreadful scenes, had the courage to throw themselves amid the flying 

weapons, and making a rush across, to part the incensed armies, and assuage their 

fury; imploring their fathers on the one side, their husbands on the other, "that as 

fathers-in-law and sons-in-law they would not contaminate each other with impious 

blood, nor stain their offspring with parricide, the one their grandchildren, the other 

their children. If you are dissatisfied with the affinity between you, if with our 

marriages, turn your resentment against us; we are the cause of war, we of wounds 

and of bloodshed to our husbands and parents. It were better that we perish than 

live widowed or fatherless without one or other of you." The appeal affects both the multitudes and the leaders. Silence and sudden suspension ensue. Upon this the leaders come forward in order to concert a treaty, and they not only conclude a peace, but form one state out of two. 

Livy, The History of Rome tranlated by D. Spillan, London: Bohn, 1849: book 1, section 13, 

page 19

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Male: We're in the Louvre and we're looking at a late Jacques-Louis David, The Intervention of the Sabine Women. It was meant as a pendant to Poussin's earlier very famous Rape of the Sabine. Female: Also in the Louvre. Male: It takes as its narrative the story of the founding of ancient Rome. We're actually located very specifically in Rome, in the Forum, and we can see rising above the capital of Rome itself. The story, very quickly, is that the Romans, who had no women, attack the Sabine, a neighboring tribe, and ran off with their women. Years later, the Sabine attacked Rome to get the women back. Here we have Hersilia, who is now the wife of the Roman leader, Romulus, the king of the Romans, and also daughter of Female: The king of the Sabines. Male: She's watching her husband and her father about to kill each other. She steps in the middle with her children, his grandchildren, his sons, and says, "Stop." Think about this in historical context. This is just a few years after the outrageous violence of the Reign of Terror at the end of the French Revolution. This is a moment and a painting about reconciliation. Female: David conceived the idea while he was in prison. He was in prison because of his participation in the Reign of Terror, the most radical period of the revolution, the fact that he had been a follower of Robespierre who had just been beheaded. So this idea of reconciling the French state, looking for a political, peaceful solution. The fact that women play such a pivotal role here is so different from all David's earlier work where men are really the actors. Men are making the sacrifices for the state. Women are all generally very passive, very emotional, very concerned about their own selfish needs, and here those needs become the pivot to turning the state around. Male: If we did turn around, we would be looking at the Oath of the Horatii, which hangs directly opposite this painting; David's early masterpiece that does completely make women ineffectual and places them in the position there associated with emotion which is subordinate to the needs of the state. Here the needs of the state are served by that emotion. Female: And Hersilia dressed in white symbolizes purity and righteousness. Male: But it's powerful. Female: Very powerful. She strides forward. She spreads her arms. Another female figure opens her arms and looks over toward the King of the Sabines and holds her arms open saying, "Look at the children; think about the children." Male: What's so interesting is if you look at the two male protagonists, they are focused only on each other; so much so, that they actually don't see the world around them. It's the women that you have a sense where you have the fuller picture. Female: While Romulus and Tatius, the King of the Sabines, focus exclusively on each other, another soldier on horseback to the right understands what's about to happen here and puts his sword away. Male: That's right. Another nude turns his horse around and walks away from the field of battle. Female: Although this may look generally Classical to us, David was looking for something specifically Greek. Male: By Greek, I think David was really looking to male nudity. If you think about the Oath of the Horatii, those Romans are fully clothed; but here he's really looking back to Greek sculptures and to that particularly Greek idea of the celebration of the human body. Female: As we're standing here and I'm looking at the figure of Hersilia, this really strong female figure that so dominates the canvas with her breasts revealed through the drapery, these beautiful folds of drapery that highlight her womb, her legs spread with children in between. It feels to me that this is about motherhood. We know that David was imprisoned and visited by his wife Male: Even though she was estranged. Female: And also perhaps had royalist sympathies. So one wonders if this is a reconciliation that's both personal and political for David. (jazzy music)