The Sabine Women and Lévi-Strauss

  • T. J. Clark
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print book series (PERCP)


In a letter Poussin wrote to his patron Paul Fréart de Chantelou in April 1639, instructing him how best to come to terms with the new painting Poussin had sent him — patron and painter were at the start of their long relationship, so basic advice was in order — the following phrase occurs. ‘Lisés l’istoire et le tableau, afin de cognoistre si chasque chose est appropriee au subiect.’3 (Read the story and the picture, so as to know if each thing is appropriate to the subject.) I think of this as a John Barrell-type instruction. Therefore it is not surprising that the phrase itself, for all its apparent straightforwardness, is open to interpretation. I for one doubt that Poussin intended Chantelou to look at the painting — it is the Israelites Gathering Manna now in the Louvre — Bible in hand, checking off visual incident against precise textual instigation. This What a certain kind of scholarship wants the letter to mean. I think Poussin assumed that he and Chantelou had the gist of the episode from Exodus, and even some of its more dramatic details, as common ground. When he says ‘lisés l’istoire et le tableau’, I believe we should understand l’istoire to mean something close to Alberti’s historia, and unpack the implied contrast with le tableau in the light of another phrase occurring earlier in the same sentence: ’et que tout ensemble vous considériés le tableau’.


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  1. 1.
    Claude Levi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, translated by James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer and Rodney Needham (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 115. Warmest thanks to Jessica Buskirk for her help with the research toward this article, to Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby and Anne Wagner for their advice, and to Christopher Hallett for his generous and pointed comments on the text. Some of the ideas developed here emerged first in a seminar I gave on ‘Description in Art History’ at Berkeley in 1998, and I am grateful to participants for their enthusiasm and generosity at that stage.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ibid., pp. 62–3.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Charles Jouanny, Correspondance de Nicolas Poussin (Paris: F. de Nobele, reimpression, 1968), p. 21.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See especially the discoveries and arguments of Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, put forward most sharply in her ‘David’s Sabine Women: Body, Gender and Republican Culture under the Directory’, Art History, vol. 14, no. 3, September 1991, pp. 397–430, and expanded and summed up in Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), chapter 3; and of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, ‘Nudity a la grecque in 1799’, Art Bulletin, Lxxx, no. 2, June 1998, pp. 311–35. Both Grigsby’s and Lajer-Burcharth’s approaches are intense and suggestive, and much of what follows is in dialogue with their findings. Compare Stefan Germer and Hubertus Kohle, ‘From the Theatrical to the Aesthetic Hero: On the Privatization of the Idea of Virtue in David’s Brutus and Sabines’, Art History, vol. 9, no. 2, June 1986, pp. 168–84. I end up disagreeing with Germer and Kohle’s verdict on the Sabines, but their thinking about the public-private distinction in David’s paintings of the 1780s remains fundamental.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See especially Denis Mahon, Guercino: Master Painter of the Baroque (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1992), pp. 262–4; Stéphane Loire, Le Guerchin en France (Paris: Reunion des musées nationaux, 1990), pp. 54–6; and Stéphane Loire, Musée du Louvre: Ecole italienne, XVIIe siecle: 1. Bologne (Paris: Reunion des musees nationaux, 1996), pp. 253–7. For discussion of the Sabines’ sources, see Robert Rosenblum, ‘A New Source for David’s “Sabines” ‘, Burlington Magazine, April 1962, pp. 158–62. Rosenblum was the first to suggest that a painting by Francois-Andre Vincent of the Intervention, shown in the Salon of 1781 and undoubtedly seen at that time by David, might also be relevant. Perhaps so - the bodies struggling on the ground in the 1781 painting may have become part of David’s image bank - but ultimately I see Vincent’s episodic, centrifugal, deliberately overwrought treatment of the subject as too remote from David’s view of things to have counted for much two decades later.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Livy, History of Rome, with English translation by B.O. Foster (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press [Loeb Classical Library], 14 vols, 1982–98), vol. 1, pp. 1–2. Hereafter cited in text as L, 1–2, etc., with translations sometimes modified. Christopher Hallett believes that a case could be made for the Romans’ own excavation of their deep past being powered, in ways analogous to David’s, by a feeling of crisis in the state they inhabited. The key sources date from the era of proscriptions, the assassination of Caesar, the ‘Roman Revolution’. Augustus at one point considered taking the name Romulus, but opted for a title that invoked the founder more indirectly.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    See the material summarized in Gary Miles, Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995), pp. 186–7.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Plutarchs Lives, with English trans. by Bernadotte Perrin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press [Loeb Classical Library], 11 vols, reprinted 1948), vol. 1, pp. 126–9. Hereafter cited in text as P, 126–9, etc., with translations sometimes modified.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Ovid in Six Volumes, with English translation by James George Frazer (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press and William Heinemann [Loeb Classical Library], revised edition, 1931–9), vol. 5, pp. 134–5. Hereafter cited in text as 0, 134–5, etc.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    See Miles, Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome, p. 184. Miles’s whole discussion of the Sabines story (pp. 179–219) is helpful, as is T. Peter Wiseman, ‘The Wife and Children of Romulus’, Classical Quarterly vol. 33, no. 2, 1983, pp. 445–52, and Jacques Boulogne, ‘L’utilisation du mythe de l’enlevement des Sabines chez Plutarque’, Bulletin de lAssociation Guillaume Bude, 4, December 2000, pp. 353–63.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    My thanks to Christopher Hallett for pointing this out. The Phrygian cap is (among other things) again an antiquarian reference to the Romans’ part-Trojan origins.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Pierre Chaussard, Sur le tableau des Sabines, par David (Paris: Charles Pougens, An VIII), pp. 20–1.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    Amyot translates the key phrase: ‘de ne se dépouiller point a nu devant elles, ni pouvoir etre appelees en justice devant les juges criminels connaissant des homicides’. See Jacques Amyot, Les Vies des hommes illustres (Paris: P. Dupont, new edition, 1826), p. 108. Dacier corrects this to: ‘qu’on ne paroitroit point nu devant elles; qu’elles ne pourroient etre obligees de comparoitre devant les juges établis pour juger des meutres’. See André Dacier, Les Vies des hommes illustres de Plutarque (Paris: Duprat-Duverger, new edition, 1811), p. 145. (Amyot’s famous translation, a staple of private libraries, was given a new edition in the 1780s; Dacier’s Plutarch, first published in 1721, had three new editions before 1800.) Clearly the Greek is difficult here. From Dryden to Loeb, English translators opt for the idea of nudity as a capital crime, or, at least, one now to be judged in the courts set up to deal with such life and death matters. The milder French tradition persists, though I notice one recent translation adopting the English reading.Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    What follows is dependent on all of the first ten dazzling chapters of Claude Levi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, but perhaps particularly Chapter IV, ‘Endogamy and Exogamy’, Chapter V, ‘The Principle of Reciprocity’, and Chapter VIII, ‘Alliance and Descent’.Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    On the question of homosociality and/or homoeroticism in David’s studio, which may or may not be relevant here, see, among much recent literature — often at loggerheads — Thomas Crow, Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), and Whitney Davis, ‘The Renunciation of Reaction in Girodet’s Sleep of Endymion’, in Norman Bryson etal., eds, Visual Culture: Images and Interpretations (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), pp. 168–201.Google Scholar

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© T.J. Clark 2005

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