How have artists interpreted and portrayed historical events throughout history?
This exhibition, Interpreting the Abduction, strives to invite you to critically reevaluate things you have been presented with in a different way than you have perhaps before.
In the early history of Rome, the men of Romulus tried to negotiate with the people of the Sabine tribe—attempting to arrange for the marriage of the Sabine women to Romulus’ men in order to found families in the new city of Rome. The Sabines, according to the Roman legends, refused the negotiations in favor of keeping their tribe pure from the strangers. In retaliation, it is said that the Roman soldiers laid in wait during a Sabinian festival, and when the signal was given, swooped in to claim the Sabine women and take them as their wives.
Since the abduction’s occurrence in the 6th century BCE, artists have created numerous renditions of the scene. Some have sympathized with the Sabines and emphasized the idea of abduction and even rape, while others have taken the side of the Romans and justified their actions.
The purpose of this gallery is to showcase different artists’ interpretations of this event—incorporating not only their viewpoint, but also each of their individual styles.
History is open to interpretation. It is presented in whatever manner that the presenter chooses. Journey through the last 500 years with these artists’ interpretations, and take a moment to reassess your own assumptions and understandings.
Nicholas Poussin, The Abduction of the Sabine Women, ca. 1633-1634
Oil on Canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art 46.160
This portrayal of the abduction scene is sympathetic to the Sabine people. Poussin uses contrasting colors and intense movement throughout the painting to show a sense of chaos, yet the structure of the buildings and the figure on the left provides a sense of organization as well. Poussin seems to want to emphasize the intentionality of the Roman brutality. This painting has aspects of the Romans specifically—such as the red robes and footwear, yet also remains reminiscent with much of Poussin’s other work in its naturalistic approach.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Rape of the Sabine Women, ca. 1635-140
Oil on Oak, The National Gallery in London NG38
Rubens, a Flemish artist, also chooses to depict the Sabine abduction from the perspective of favoring the women. The female figures’ faces seem to be frightened and unsure as to what is happening. While showing an ancient incident, Rubens clothes his figures in traditional 17th century Flemish garb. The red of the Roman soldiers’ capes contrast starkly with the gold-tinted women, and symbolizes the women as being elevated above their captors in morality. The women are portrayed as exquisite and elegant ladies who lack the ability to fight back due to their goodness. Rubens, like Poussin, stays stylistically similar to his other paintings: with a sweeping and movement-filled composition.
Giambologna, The Rape of the Sabine Women, ca. 1583
Plaster Cast; Marble, Accademia Gallery in Florence
Carved from a single block of marble, Giambologna, also known as Jean de Boulogne, creates a twisting sculpture representing the rape and abduction of the Sabines. He too seems to be biased towards the women, and goes as far as to include what can be assumed to be a male Sabinian intertwined with the woman and her captor. Here too, the woman seems to be ethereal and lifted towards heaven as she protests her capture. The figures are presented in the nude, which adds to the legendary quality of the whole story by setting them apart from the clothed mortals.
Jacques Louis-David, The Intervention of the Sabine Women, ca. 1799
Oil on Canvas, Louvre INV. 3691
This interpretation of the abduction by Jacques Louis-David paints a very different hero. Instead of having the women gracefully lifted away by the mighty Romans, they are shown here defiantly fighting back. David’s rendition is done at the forefront of the French Revolution in 1799, and it has been speculated that the woman in white in the foreground is representative of Joan of Arc, and is in fact being used to rally the French people towards revolution from the monarchy. Jacques Louis-David uses a historically recognizable painting to convoke his French revolutionaries to fight against injustice, like the women shown here.
Charles Christian Nahl, The Rape of the Sabines—The Invasion, ca. 1871
Oil on Canvas, Crocker Art Museum
Up to this point, we have seen several representations of the Romans taking Sabinian women as their wives with great force and brutality. Charles Christian Nahl has a different perspective shown here—the willingness of the women to be taken away. The Romans were already seen as conquerors, even this early in their subjugation of the Italian peninsula. To a tribal woman, a rich foreigner proposing marriage and life in a city would be very attractive. The woman beseeching her father on the right to marry the refined stranger contradicts the legend of rape and abduction that had previously been popular in Western Art History.
Pablo Picasso, Rape of the Sabine Women, ca. 1963
Oil on Canvas, Boston Museum of Fine Arts 64.709
Following his traditional Cubist painting style, this late Picasso painting was one of his final major statements against war and its horrific aftereffects. Painted during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Picasso uses the Roman Empire in its beginnings to represent all the other empires that had wreaked havoc throughout his life. Because of all the horrors he had witnessed, Picasso sympathizes with the Sabine women and their plight—depicting the garish scene as just that: garish.
Anton Solomoukha, Petite Chaperon Rouge visite le Grand Louvre, ca. 2008
Photo-Painting, Black Square Gallery
In 2008, Anton Solomoukha set up and photographed this scene. While graphic, it has many implications that connect with the Roman abduction of the Sabines. Instead of taking a single side, Solomoukha translates the legend’s implications to modernity. He locates the figures inside of the Louvre, and essentially mocks the sexually tense scene of Poussin’s rendition in the background by hyper-sexualizing the positions and actions of his own figures. In essence, Solomoukha is rejecting the ancient myth and fighting the idea of following the rules. A formerly sacred place, the Louvre is desecrated by Solomoukha’s figures who imitate some of the ideas formed in Poussin’s The Abduction of the Sabine Women. By rejecting strict tradition, even in medium, Solomoukha calls attention to the deep problems of society that seem to generate art.