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Peter Paul Rubens, The Rape of the Sabine Women

Key facts
Full title The Rape of the Sabine Women
Artist Peter Paul Rubens
Artist dates 1577 - 1640
Date made probably 1635-40
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 169.9 × 236.2 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1824
Inventory number NG38
Location Room 18
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
The Rape of the Sabine Women
Peter Paul Rubens

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.

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