Click on the picture to see an enlarged version.
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.
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.
The element that we probably find most seductive about this painting today is the way in which David has projected and controlled the tumultuous movement of all the figures, which he then brings to an abrupt halt. Hersilia and the other Sabine Women really seem to be bursting onto the scene, which they dominate. In contrast, the armies are only suggested, rather than represented, by a forest of lances, pikes, and standards; the leader of the cavalry puts his sword back in its sheath, the horses rear in a static, quivering motion; the two warriors who are about to clash are frozen in their attitudes, their furious precipitation arrested as they seem rooted to the spot. David has also tamed his colors. Of his earlier palette, he has retained only some of the vivid reds on the shoulder of Tatius, Romulus's helmet, and the robe of the woman behind Hersilia; elsewhere, the reds are shaded with brick-toned hues. Some yellows, not as bright as in earlier paintings, a bit of green on the old woman's robe, and a bit of blue near Tatius's foot recall the tones David had once preferred. In contrast, the nude bodies, the walls of Rome, the standards and the pikes, the horse's hide, and Hersilia's tunic make up a spectrum of clear bronzed tones under a slightly tinted sky.
He has totally abandoned any attempt at chiaroscuro or shadow effects. The light is everywhere. He wants to show the light as a triumphant but gentle mediatrix, like the Sabine Women. For a closer look, click on Hersilia.