Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-5) by Poussin
Interpretation of Baroque History Painting

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Abduction of the Sabine Women
By Nicolas Poussin.
Metropolitan Museum, NYC.
Regarded as one of the
greatest paintings of the
Italian Baroque.

Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-5)


The Story of the Abduction of the Sabine Women
Analysis of The Abduction of the Sabine Women
Metropolitan Museum Version (1634-5)
Louvre Version (1637-8)
Interpretation of Other Baroque Paintings


Name: The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-5)
Artist: Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Mythological painting
Movement: Baroque Art
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY (1634-5); Louvre, Paris (1637-8)

For the meaning of other celebrated masterpieces,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

Abduction of the Sabine Women
Louvre Museum, Paris.
By Nicolas Poussin.


A major figure in Baroque painting, Nicolas Poussin was a 'philosopher-painter' whose work contains some of the finest examples of formal harmony and control. He was greatly inspired by the art of classical antiquity - particularly Greek sculpture and Greek architecture - and his erudite classicism was rooted in the ideals of reason, balance and proportion. Patronized by the art collector Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679) and his circle, Poussin is noted for his history painting, his well-modelled figure painting - whose subjects are often frozen in time and expression - and his intellectual symbols and references. See, for instance, his painting Et in Arcadia Ego (1632, Louvre). One of the most meticulous of Old Masters, Poussin often built miniature stage sets and wax models upon which to base his compositions. Despite being one of the least 'Baroque' (melodramatic, bold, theatrical, swirling brushwork) of all French Baroque artists - he was a master of colour and light. For more background on the Baroque art of Italy, please see also: Classicism and Naturalism in 17th Century Italian Painting.

The Story of the Abduction of the Sabine Women

The Roman legend traditionally known as "The Rape of the Sabine Women", but more accurately translated as "The Abduction of the Sabine Women", dates back to the era of Romulus (a co-founder of Rome with his brother Remus) about 750 BCE. According to the Roman historians Livy and Plutarch, the newly established settlement of Rome suffered from a shortage of women. To remedy the problem the Romans approached the neighbouring Sabine tribe, but they refused to allow their women to take Roman husbands. So the Romans organized a large festival during which - at a pre-arranged signal - they grabbed the Sabine women and drove off the unarmed Sabine men. Outraged by this, the Sabines and their allies (the Antemnates, Caeninenses, Crustumini and others) all declared war on Rome. After their allies were each defeated in battle, the Sabines themselves attacked Rome and a fierce battle ensued, which prompted the watching Sabine women to intervene and appeal for peace. The battle came to an end, and the Sabines agreed to unite with the Romans in one nation.

The story was depicted in numerous artworks during the Italian Renaissance and afterwards, including paintings by Pietro da Cortona (1627-9, Capitoline Museums), and Jacques Stella (c.1630, Princeton University Art Museum); as well as a modern version by Pablo Picasso (1962-3, Museum of Fine Art, Boston); and the celebrated "Rape of the Sabine Women" sculpture (Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence) by Giambologna.

Similar stories of mythical abductions depicted by famous painters and sculptors include those of Helen of Troy (abducted by Paris); the Phoenician princess Europa (abducted by Zeus); Hilaeira and Phoebe (abducted by Castor and Pollux) - see: Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618) by Rubens; the Greek mythological character Deianira (kidnapped by the centaur Nessus, as he was ferrying her across the river Euenos); and the Greek goddess Persephone (abducted by Hades).



Analysis of The Abduction of the Sabine Women

Nicolas Poussin himself produced two versions of this legend: an earlier version (1634-5) now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York; and a later version (1637-8) which now hangs in the Louvre, Paris. Both works exemplify the vigorous and assertive style that the artist adopted in many of his scenes from classical history. Indeed, his interpretations of Greek and Roman mythology had a significant impact on the Neoclassical painting of artists like Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) - see, for instance, his Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799, Louvre) - and J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867).

Although both versions of The Abduction of the Sabine Women are broadly similar - in both for example, Romulus (left) gives the pre-arranged signal, and chaos fills the canvas - there are differences in composition and colour. The painting in the Met is more controlled, more static, but more colourful; while the Louvre picture is more dynamic and has more depth.

Metropolitan Museum of Art Version (1634-5)

Commissioned in 1633 by the French diplomat Marshal de Crequi, this portrayal of 'subdued mayhem' is built around powerful opposing diagonals, and accentuated with vivid blues, reds, pinks and oranges. Poussin has arranged the struggling figures in several layers of action that run in parallel to the foreground, while the flat architectural facade of the building to the right prevents the eye from wandering into the distance. As a result, the composition is much more tightly controlled than its sister in the Louvre. But the vivid colour in the painting imparts greater individualization to the figures in the foreground, which adds to the drama of the scene.

Louvre Version (1637-8)

In this version of The Abduction of the Sabine Women - commissioned by Cardinal Luigi Omodei (1607-85), Commissioner-General of the Papal States under Pope Innocent X - Poussin focuses on the panic and confrontation between the men and women, against an architectural backdrop that draws our eye into the distance with diagonals created by the buildings on the right. Notice how the vertical pillars contrast with the horizontal movements of the crowd. The linear perspective created gives the work its vanishing point. Note how the artist organizes the figures along two opposing diagonal lines that commence at the edge of the painting and meet where there is a gap in the landscape. Note also how he creates groups of figures here and there that introduce random elements into the centre of the picture, bringing variety to the tightly structured scene.

Interpretation of Other Baroque Paintings

The Entombment of Christ (Deposizione) (1601-3) by Caravaggio.
Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome.

Descent from the Cross (Rubens) (1612-14)
Cathedral of our Lady, Antwerp.

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi.
Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Allegory of Divine Providence (1633-39) by Pietro da Cortona.
Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Las Meninas (1656) by Velazquez.
Prado Museum, Madrid.

The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661) by Rembrandt.
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Apotheosis of St Ignatius (1688-94) by Andrea Pozzo.
Jesuit Church of Sant'Ignazio, Rome.


• For more classical mythological paintings by artists like Poussin, see: Homepage.

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