The painting known as The Abduction of the Sabine Women is by the artist Nicolas Poussin. The painting dates back to around 1633 in Rome, and was created by Poussin using oil on canvas. Upon first glance, the painting is depicting some kind of battle or brawl. When looking at it, one can’t help but feel a sense of captivation caused by the amount of commotion packed into the painting: people fighting, horses rearing, rulers commanding. The expression on the faces of the women alone tells a full story. And that story is not one of peace and order. This painting, more than anything, conveys a sense of chaos and conflict.
One of the most interesting things about this piece is how the space is divided. If one were to study the bottom half of this painting and the top half of this painting independently, they would arrive at completely different conclusions as to the artist’s intent. On the lower half, there is chaos. People whose expressions speak only of terror. Babies falling to the ground in pain. Men brawling with swords and daggers and fists. However, the upper half of the painting has nothing of the sort. Much to the contrary, it depicts a scene of order and structure. Occupying most of the space is a building, clean and symmetrical. The sky—though marred with dark clouds—also offers sunshine in the distance. And most notably there is a man standing tall in the upper left quadrant of the painting.
This man is also a perfect representation of Poussin’s use of hierarchic structure. Poussin wants the viewer to know how important this man is and does so in many different ways. For one, the man is raised far above everyone else in the painting, in essence towering over the mass of entangled bodies below. He is also notably distinct from the commotion below him. His expression does not read of pain or anger like those below, but seems to suggest confidence. Beyond this, the man is noticeably static. He stands tall and straight, not appearing to have any sense of motion. And just in case the viewer was not already convinced of this man’s rank, the man also wields a scepter, representative of his authority and showing he is a ruler or emperor of some fashion.
One of the most important recurring symbols in this piece is arms stretching out to the sky above. This is most prominent with the two women positioned just below the emperor. Both women are being grabbed and held captive by two muscular men, and as they appear to be carried away, they stretch their arms to the sky in an angelic fashion. The women with the green dress even appears to be looking up to the sky, suggesting it is a plea, her reaching to the heavens begging to be saved. This motif continues to crop up throughout the rest of the painting and is true of virtually every woman being taken, as well as one of the children at the bottom of the painting. The men, too, have their arms stretched upward, however salvation does not appear to be their desire. The mens raised hands are predominantly wrapped around a piece of sharpened steel or are clenched into a fist. No, it is not salvation they are after, but violence.
This recurring idea of violence and chaos and motion is something important to the overall theme of the piece. Poussin’s use of angles and diagonals is employed to emphasize this sense of motion. Of the dozens of people in the painting, the vast majority are leaning to the right, their bodies stretched on a diagonal plane. It imparts on the viewer a sense of movement to the right. There are also some notable contrasts to this. The man wearing golden armor wielding a dagger is also stretched out diagonally, but is instead angled to the left. Same is true for the horse at the center right of the painting. This reinforces the sense of movement, but is juxtaposed to the other figures in the painting creating a further sense of conflict and chaos. The only notable exceptions to this angular momentum is the emperor, to emphasize his importance, and the two men positioned behind him.
These two men positioned behind the emperor also highlight another aspect of this painting: Poussin’s use of shadows and lighting. Though these two men share some similarities with the emperor—they are elevated above everyone else and appear static—they are distinctly shadowed behind him. While the emperor is clothed in a bright red robe, the two men behind him are wearing dull colors, and are darkened in shadow to the point where one cannot read their expressions. This shows their lack of importance relative to the emperor. More generally speaking, Poussin’s use of shadows and lighting gives a sense of realism and depth.
In many ways, this painting is one of contrasts. The order and and symmetry of the top half is posed against the dense commotion of the bottom half. The emperor stands tall and still, distinct from the throngs of combatting people below. The women reach their hands to the sky in hope of salvation, while the men reach toward bloodshed. The shadows dampen aspects of the painting, while the light emphasizes others. And these contrasts lend to the overall sense of conflict shown within this painting. This was not a happy event in history, one filled with ceremony and order. This was an event imbued with chaos and commotion and conflict, and Poussin, through his art, imparts on the viewer a sense of fear and uncertainty. A feeling undoubtedly shared by those who actually had to endure it.