The turbulent years surrounding the French Revolution (1789 – 1799) uprooted society and redefined a nation. The monarchy had collapsed, and France found itself in a period of drastic civil unrest. During this time, many artists turned to art to convey their thoughts and reconcile their emotions.
Jacques-Louis David, a prominent French neoclassical artist of the time, was also heavily involved in the political arena. David championed the revolution and remained a fervent supporter (and close acquaintance) of Maximilien Robespierre, one of the most influential figures of the revolution whose rule culminated with the “Reign of Terror.” After Robespierre’s fall from power, David was promptly arrested and imprisoned. During his time in jail, he began work on what would later become one of his most famous masterpieces—The Intervention of the Sabine Women. The painting centers around a dramatic tale of conflict and strife. For this reason, many are quick to assume it echoes the violence and brutality David saw during his time with Robespierre, though in reality, the intended message is stating just the opposite. The Intervention of the Sabine Women is a call for unity, peace and reconciliation, as David is urging his audience to choose love over conflict.
The composition recalls an ancient Roman tale of the women of Sabine. The story begins in a time where Romans were in dire need of women in order to populate their society. To solve the problem, Romulus, the Roman leader, commanded the Romans to abduct the daughters of their neighbors, the Sabines. Titus Tatius, the leader of the Sabines, immediately sought vengeance. However, his plan to attack Rome was complicated by the fact that his daughter, Hersilia, was married to Romulus.
David depicts the aftermath of these events, where the enraged Sabines have confronted the belligerent Romans on the battlefield. The men are on the brink of battle, though they stand hindered as the Sabine women have thrown themselves into the midst of the fighting.
David has positioned the principal figures in the foreground, emphasizing their relationship with one another. In the front left, Tatius is leaning away from battle as if about to retreat. Romulus holds a spear in the air, poised to attack and yet he seems to hesitate. Hersilia has thrust herself and her children between her husband and her father. Her arms are stretched out, a desperate plea for the warriors on both sides to surrender. Her white gown—the color of surrender—stands out prominently in the composition. Hersilia has become the arbiter of conflict and the envoy of peace, and both Romulus and Tatius appear to heed her call. Even the geometrical shapes that David implements in these figures speak of peace. By using an oval and a circle to depict Tatius and Romulus’s shields, David shows that two seemingly disparate entities are still derivative of the same source, much like family. The emphasis on familial conflict reflects the civil unrest in France, and as the painting depicts peace and reconciliation, David urges others to adopt the practice.
David has strategically situated the composition around the dynamic between Tatius, Hersilia, and Romulus. The horsemen behind Romulus are shown sheathing their swords. Both the Sabines and the Romans have repositioned their spears towards the sky, rather than each other. Women have thrown themselves, and their children, into the battlefield to stop the fighting. David has incorporated the children to echo the sentiments that war does not merely affect those involved, but future generations as well.
While The Intervention of the Sabine Women took David nearly four years to complete, its message has resonated throughout time. What began as a call for France to repurpose itself in the post-revolution era became a message of peace to the world. And centuries later, in a world that is once again wrought with violence and bloodshed, David’s message is once again relevant.