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Jacques-Louis David, 1748-1825

Variation on the Intervention of the Sabine Women

Description:Read An Essay On This Drawing

When this sheet entered the Peabody Art Collection in 1893, the classicizing art of Jacques-Louis David was not greatly appreciated. Although he had been the most famous painter in Europe during his lifetime, critical rejection by the Romantic and realist generations followed, down to the end of the nineteenth century. It was only after a major exhibition in Paris, David et ses élèves (1913), that first the portraits, then the Napoleonic compositions, and finally the scenes from Greek and Roman history came to be considered more positively. A reevaluation of the paintings and drawings that David executed in Brussels (1816-25), where he was exiled by the returning Bourbon monarchy after the fall of Napoleon, has occurred only in the last twenty years, thanks to the persuasive research of art historians and the determined acquisitions of major museums (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth; Musée du Louvre, Paris; National Gallery, London; Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Clark Art Institute, Williamstown).

fig 1, Jacques-Louis David, The Intervention of the Sabine Women, oil on canvas, 1799. Paris, Musée du Louvre. Photo: R.G. Ojeda. Réunion des Musees Nationaux/Art Resource, NYIn exile, David painted portraits and mythological subjects, especially the loves of the gods, which are a far cry from the stern moralizing scenes that had established his reputation in the 1780s. His Brussels drawings are often enigmatic, with grimacing figures juxtaposed in a manner defying explicit narrative interpretation. As with this sheet, the composition generally fills a small album-size page and is cropped to focus on physiognomic expressions. The black crayon technique, quite alien to the more subtle practice of pencil and wash he employed earlier in his career, seems deliberately heavy-handed, as if to intensify the naïveté of the rendering. One possible explanation for this evolution in his graphic style may be his avowed desire to penetrate more deeply the spirit of antique art, a primitivism that also inspired his fascination with fifteenth-century Flemish painting during his last years.

This drawing is more a free interpretation than a "free repetition" of the huge painting David finished in 1799 representing The Intervention of the Sabine Women (Fig. 1), a subject from the history of the founding of Rome by Romulus. After the Romans had abducted the Sabine women to establish families, the Sabines, led by Tatius, marched on Rome. The noble speech of Hersilia, the Sabine Romulus had taken for a wife, and the tearful pleas of the other women put an end to the conflict. Compared to the painted figures, full-length and life-size, spread out over the composition, those in the drawing are brought dramatically close together, in a play of tightly interlocking forms. All suggestion of historical context and setting has disappeared.

fig 2, Jacques-Louis David, Variation on Leonidas, 1817. Paris, private collection.It even appears that the story has been modified since the female figure, Hersilia in the painting, has sacrificed her beauty for a crown. Romulus, on the right, retains a relatively graceful profile, while Tatius, on the left, has been given a mundane expression, as if pouting. David presumably esteemed that the drawing preserved the essence of his grand composition. The year before he executed this sheet, he had drawn a free variation on Leonidas (Fig. 2), a painting finished in 1814 and initially conceived as a pendant to the Sabines. The two drawings, identical in size, may also be seen as pendants, complementary meditations on two of his major pictures, which he was discreetly maneuvering to sell to the French government at the time. Philippe Bordes

Medium: Black crayon on cream, medium weight, moderately textured laid paper
Dimensions: Sheet: 134 x 200 mm.
Date: 1818
Category: historical
Subject: Sabines
Alternate Title: Study of Three Heads after the 'Sabines' Repetition Libres des Sabines
Inscriptions and Markings: RECTO: TC, black crayon, 'r?p?tition libre des Sabines / L. David Brux, 1818'; TR, faint, '?. R.'; VERSO: UR, graphite, 'a'; UC, graphite, '1014'.
Exhibition History: Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile, organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Sterling and Francine Clart Art Institute, Los Angeles only, February 1- September 5, 2005.
Bibliography: Bordes, Phillippe. Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile; Yale University Press and Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2005, cat. no. 34. Cheryl Snay, "Acquiring Minds: The Early Patrons of Nineteenth-Century French Drawings in Baltimore," Master Drawings 42:1 (Spring 2004); ill. p. 70. Peabody Institute, Gallery of Art: List of Works of Art on Exhibition, October 1900, p. 48, no. 340.
Provenance: Maryland State Archives by transfer, 1996; Johns Hopkins University by transfer, 1979; Peabody Institute, Baltimore, by bequest, 1893; Charles J. M. Eaton (1807-1893), Baltimore.
Collection: State of Maryland Archives: Peabody Collection
Credit Line: The Peabody Art Collection. Courtesy of the Maryland Commission on Artistic Property of the Maryland State Archives, on loan to The Baltimore Museum of Art MSA SC 4680-13-0000
Object Number: R.11826.352