The Rape of the Sabine Women
by Jan Steen
Netherlands (Leiden) (1626 - 1679)
Oil on canvas (c. 1665 - 1667)
SN #269 Bequest of John Ringling 1936
Signed by the artist, lower right: "J. Steen"

Description (level 1 visitor):
This painting by the Dutch artist Jan Steen is thought to be his earliest classical painting. Although most of his work is full of humor and exposes the folly of human nature in everyday life, in this painting he has chosen as his subject a legend from the early history of Rome. Romulus, the founder of Rome arranged a festival, inviting the inhabitants of neighboring settlements to come with their wives and children. During the festival, at a given signal, young Roman men broke into the crowd and snatched unmarried maidens from the visiting Sabines. It was reported by the early historian, Plutarch, that only one young wife was carried off with the maidens and he went on to say that the action was only intended to form an alliance with their neighbors by the "greatest and surest bonds." (At the same time, it guaranteed that the population of Rome would be assured of future growth!) In this painting Jan Steen has allowed his sense of humor to convey a scene that more nearly resembles an out-of-control picnic than a serious legend.

If we look closely at the painting we can see great individualism in the expressions and movements of the figures, who are dressed in clothing suggesting classical attire. The glee of the Romans and the fear and dramatic gestures of the maidens give drama and high animation to the scene. Notice how the red cloth on the ground in the center of the painting carries our eye to the couple in the background as she bolts for freedom. Beyond the woods, the clear bright sky draws our eye all the way to the horizon and promises a brighter day ahead. It also sets off the meticulous rendering of the gnarled trees. On the far right, barely visible, the raucous scene is echoed in a distant clearing in the forest.

It is only fair to tell you that there is another story that completes this tale. The Sabine women reconciled to their fate and wed with the Romans. Later when the Sabine army came to rescue them, the women, some carrying their children, intervened with equal energy between their Roman husbands and their Sabine fathers and brothers and brought peace between the warring bands. This story too was the subject of many paintings, particularly during the late Baroque period, which was known for high drama played out on the artist's canvas.

Additional Information for Level 2 visitors:

1. Many of the figure poses are borrowed from prints of classical works known by Steen, but the unique facial expressions, the energy of the flailing arms and flying feet and legs, suggest the painting was intended to appeal to popular rather than patrician taste.
2. Symbolism in the painting would have been quickly recognized by the 17th C. viewer: the girl reaching for her girdle (a ribbon) in the foreground suggests lost chastity, as does the fallen rose and the discarded pearls. Do you see the loosened ivy hanging from the tree in the foreground and on the far right? As the ivy has loosened, so has marital fidelity. . . which perhaps suggests that Jan Steen was implying that more than one of the young ladies was wed before the abduction. The girl on the far right is dropping flowers on the ground as a leering figure from the Commedia dell'Arte grabs at her, another reference quickly recognized by the 17th Century viewer.
3. Trees frame the couple in the center.
4. Notice how the figures spaced on a diagonal on the right and center carry the viewer back into the interior of the painting, and the dark foreground, broken by angled streaks of light, also draw our eyes to the figures beyond.

Additional information for the level 3 visitor:
1. The pairs of struggling figures are linked back and forth in space across the foreground of the paintings and the tree branches echo the frenzied gestures of the girls.
2. The woman as victim and sometimes as victor is common in Dutch art and in Steens' work. In this painting we see women as the victims.
4.Although there has been inpainting in many of the figures and some detail has been lost, the sheer vitality, textures and colors are still very much apparent.
5. This painting was purchased by John Ringling at the American Art Association sale in 1928 and it was the first Dutch painting in his collection.