The legend of the abduction of the Sabine women by the Romans is described by several classical writers. While accounts vary, key details are consistent: Romulus, founder and then king of Rome, had built an impressive city, but there was a shortage of women. He invited the Sabines, who lived in the mountains nearby, to bring their wives and daughters to a festival of chariot racing, intending to seize the unmarried women.
In this painting, Romulus is seated in silhouette. He points towards the women on the dais as a signal to his men to begin the abduction. The women reel back in distress, while in the foreground is a close-up view of the first victims being carried away. Rubens was clearly concerned to emphasise the violence involved, contrasting the dark, determined, muscular Romans with the pale-skinned, wide-eyed helplessness of the women. But he has also eroticised the moment – several of the women have their breasts already exposed, while a soldier lifts the skirts of another.
The story of the rape – or abduction – of the Sabine women would have been well known to Rubens and his clients. It was a famous moment in the legends surrounding the founding of Rome, referred to by several classical writers, including Plutarch, Ovid, Virgil and Livy. The accounts vary, but key details are consistent: Romulus, founder and then king of Rome, had built an impressive city, but there was a desperate shortage of young women. He came up with a ruse to resolve the problem. He invited the Sabines, who lived in the mountains north-east of Rome, to bring their wives and daughters to a festival of chariot racing in celebration of the god Consus. At a signal from Romulus, the Romans betrayed their guests – they abducted the young unmarried women and drove the rest away, then forced their captives into marriage.
In this monumental painting Rubens has conjured up a complex scene of high theatre. He has used classical columns and arches (which are hung with garlands celebrating the games) to evoke a stage, and has created a sense of depth by arranging the figures in three planes. Those in the foreground are depicted in more detail and with stronger colours, those in the middle ground are in paler pastels and those in the distance are only sketched in.
The drama unfolds from the right-hand side of the canvas, where Romulus is seated in silhouette. He points towards the dais, a signal for the women – who have apparently been placed there so that they can watch the games – to be taken. They reel back in distress, a writhing mass of gesticulating limbs and anxious eyes. In the foreground, meanwhile, we get a close-up view of the first victims being carried away. The scene of men fighting in the background is harder to interpret, but as two of the women are clearly appealing to the soldiers for help and one horseman is looking at them in alarm, it most likely represents the Romans holding off the attempts of the Sabine men to protect the women.
Rubens was clearly concerned to emphasise the violence involved in the abduction. There is a clear contrast between the dark, muscular figures and determined frowns of the Romans and the pale-skinned, wide-eyed helplessness of the women. And while he has depicted the soldiers in classical dress, the women are wearing seventeenth-century costume – as far as the viewers were concerned, they are not Sabines but contemporary Flemish ladies. The figure nearest us summarises their plight. Held in in the sinewy clutch of her abductor, she clasps her hands in supplication to the gods, her facing shining with tears. But for all the violence involved, Rubens also eroticised the moment – several of the women have their breasts exposed, while a soldier lifts the skirts of another.
The pose of the soldier on the extreme left with the short sword and shield, is reminiscent of the Borghese Gladiator, an antique sculpture that Rubens had seen when he was working in Rome. The woman in a pink dress looking down from the back centre of the dais may be a portrait of the artist’s second wife, Hélène Fourment.
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