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Work The Rape of the Sabine Women
Department of Paintings: French painting
The Rape of the Sabine Women
© Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN / Angèle Dequier
Painted for Cardinal Luigi Omodei. The subject, taken from Plutarch's life of Romulus, illustrates the moment when the Romans seize the Sabine women in order to take them for their wives.
Poussin painted an initial version of this composition circa 1635 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art).
The painting and its double
According to Bellori, the Italian biographer of Poussin, the canvas was painted for Cardinal Aluigi Omodei, who kept it until his death in 1685. His inheritors then sold it to Louis XIV. The king was anxious to build up a collection of the artist's works - despite his absence from the Parisian scene (he lived in Italy all his life except for a stay in Paris between 1640 and 1642), Poussin was still a model for the painters of the Académie. He had already completed a composition on the same theme in 1633-34 for Maréchal de Créqui, who was then on a mission to Rome. This first version is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The same subjects were often painted by Poussin after an interval of several years, so this is not an isolated example. It means we are able to judge his ability to inject new life into his compositions, the most famous example being that of the Sacraments, where he executed two series of seven paintings.
Women for the greatness of Rome
The painting depicts one of the mythical episodes surrounding the history of ancient Rome. The city has just been founded by Romulus, and the Romans wish to ensure the future prosperity of their young nation. As there is a lack of women to provide the necessary offspring, they plan a mass abduction. With this in mind, they invite the neighboring Sabines to a feast during which they seize the women and drive off the men. Three years later, the Sabines attack Rome in revenge. But the conflict is prevented thanks to the women, who stand between their brothers and their husbands (to whom they have become reconciled). Thus peace was achieved between the two peoples. Poussin has chosen to illustrate the scene of the abduction. Romulus stands on the left, dominating the proceedings, in a pose directly inspired by Imperial statues. In the central section, the painter emphasizes the panic and confrontation between the men and women. This all takes place against an architectural background in linear perspective, which gives the work its vanishing point. Also of interest is the way the artist has organized the figures, using two diagonal lines that start from the edges of the picture and join up where there is a gap in the landscape, thus making the work more dynamic.
The theme of abduction was popular from the sixteenth century onwards. It allowed male and female bodies to be merged with one another, as in sculpture, but also enabled a variety of expressions to be depicted and, especially in painting, to give an impression of crowds and panic. So it was a theme rich in opportunities for three-dimensional effects achieved through the interaction of solid objects with the surrounding space. Among such episodes telling stories of abductions, the most frequent ones, apart from the Sabine women, are those of Helen by Paris, Europa by Zeus, Deianira by the centaur Nessus, and Persephone by Hades, which can be seen in a sculpture by Bernini. Poussin probably drew inspiration from this for the group in the foreground on the left.
The Rape of the Sabine Women
Oil on canvas
H. 1.59 m; W. 2.06 m
Louis XIV Collection (purchased 1685)
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