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
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.