1795 was a dark time for Jaques-Louis David. The French Revolution was in full bloody swing, and while his waffling political allegiances had kept him safe for a while, David had finally gone too far. As a member of the revolution’s vicious police force, the Committee of General Security, David had directly participated in the execution of thousands of French citizens. David had blood on his hands, and when the tide turned, and Robespierre himself was guillotined, David was thrown in jail. In prison, David concieved of The Intervention of the Sabine Women.
Inspiration arrived in the form of Marguerite Charlotte Pécoul, David’s estranged wife, who visited him in prison. At the time, a popular theme for history painting was “the rape of the sabine woman” when the men of Rome kidnapped wives from the neighboring towns. Apparently, violence has always been popular in media. But David knew his history, and the stories told of a battle at the gates of Rome, where the Sabine men and the Romans clash. At the height of the conflict, Hersilia, a Sabine girl who had become the wife of the Roman General Romulus, throws herself between the combatants in a plea for peace. A moment of compassion in a time of conflict.
Jaques-Louis David laid out a massive, 17ft long canvas and went to work. David said of the piece that he wanted to capture the style of the Greek masters: “the most prominent general characteristics of the Greek masterpieces are a noble simplicity and silent greatness in pose as well as in expression.” The painting took him five years to complete. By the time his Sabine masterpiece was finished, Napoleon had risen to power and had his eye on the artist, understanding the propaganda potential of David’s dramatic paintings. David showed the work in its own exhibition at the National Palace of Arts and Science, and remarried Marguerite.
Got questions, comments or corrections about The Intervention of the Sabine Women? Join the conversation in our Discord, and if you enjoy content like this, consider becoming a member for exclusive essays, downloadables, and discounts in the Obelisk Store.
Reed Enger, "The Intervention of the Sabine Women," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 25, 2015; last modified October 08, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/jacques-louis-david/the-intervention-of-the-sabine-women/.