David's greatest painting,
and a get-out-of-jail-free card.
1795 was a dark time for Jaques-Louis David. The French Revolution was in full bloody swing — and David, who's waffling political allegiances had kept him safe had finally gone too far. As a member of the revolution's vicious police force, the Committee of General Security, David had directly participated in the execution of thousands of French citizens. David had blood on his hands, and when the tide turned, and Robespierre himself was guillotined, he was thrown in jail. In prison, David concieved of The Intervention of the Sabine Women.
Inspiration arrived in the form of Marguerite Charlotte Pécoul, David's estranged wife, who visited him in prison. At the time, a popular theme for history painting was "the rape of the sabine woman" — when the men of Rome kidnapped wives from the neighboring towns. Apparently, violence has always been popular in media. But David knew his history, and the stories told of a battle at the gates of Rome, where the Sabine men and the Romans clash — but Hersilia, a Sabine girl who had become the wife of Romulus, the Roman General — throws herself between the combatants in a plea for peace. A moment of compassion in a time of conflict.
And so Jaques-Louis David laid out a massive, 17ft long canvas and went to work. David said of the piece that he wanted to capture the style of the Greek masters: "the most prominent general characteristics of the Greek masterpieces are a noble simplicity and silent greatness in pose as well as in expression." The painting would take him five years to complete. By the time his Sabine masterpiece was finished, Napoleon had risen to power and had his eye on the artist, understanding the propaganda potential of David's dramatic paintings. David showed the work in its own exebition at the National Palace of Arts and Science, and remarried Marguerite.