Rape of the Sabine ~ David
David was in jail, dependent upon assistance from his pupils and his ex-wife, herself recently in dangera because of her openly royalist sentiments. In this sort of limbo, David returned to his original ideas of antiquity and purity, which had somehow gotten mixed up with violence and bloodshed. Once released from prison, because of the intervention of his wife and pupils, he embarked on an ambitious project. "I set out to do something entirely new. ... I want to take art back to the principles laid down by the Greeks." This daunting project took him four years and produced this picture.
We are in the early days of Roman history. The Romans have abducted the daughters of their neighbors, the Sabines. To avenge this abduction, the Sabines attacked Rome, although not immediately--since Hersilia, the daughter of Tatius, the leader of the Sabines, had been married to Romulus, the Roman leader, and then had two children by him in the interim. Here we see Hersilia between her father and husband as she adjures the warriors on both sides not to take wives away from their husbands or mothers away from their children. The other Sabine Women join in her exhortations.
After many preliminary compositional sketches, which occupied him for some time, David chose to set out in a totally new direction, marking a turning point in his artistic development. As in his previous history paintings, David strove simultaneously for truth and grandeur. His figures are at one and the same time human beings and heroes. He borrowed his attitudes from classical bas-reliefs and his figures from contemporary models.
The theme of the picture is reconciliation. After the excesses of the reign of Terror, this was an appealing idea, and historians are fond of claiming the picture as a tribute to his wife. But the most striking thing about this painting is that the warriors are nude. David was inspired by the idea that the Greeks had represented their gods, athletes, and heroes in the nude. Unlike Michelangelo, David did not seek to glorify masculine beauty, but rather to endow his heroes with a superior quality that, ultimately, was more moral than physical. With the exception of Romulus, these nude bodies are not particularly muscular. David wanted to refine, to strip away anything that was unnecessary, to reduce everything to a supreme, heroic simplicity.