1814-1875 | French
The Abduction of the Sabine Women
Signed "J.F. Millet" (lower right)
Oil on canvas
This dynamic oil on canvas represents one of the most recognized subjects of art history by one of the most important artists of the 19th century. Entitled The Abduction of the Sabine Women, it was composed by the great Jean-François Millet, a painter who is rightfully celebrated as the master of the peasant. Rather than a sower or field laborer, however, this early work captures a mythological narrative, a remarkable rarity for this painter. The dramatic story lends Millet the opportunity to display his command of figure, gesture and tone, revealing the earliest hints of the Realist style that would come to define his artistic genius.
This tempestuous scene of a woman being abducted by a man on horseback was composed at a critical point in Millet’s career. After studying at the École des Beaux-Arts under the tutelage of the history painter Paul Delaroche, Millet achieved modest success as a portrait and genre painter. Yet, by the 1840s, he sought to establish himself on a larger stage and began working on classical and historical compositions for the Paris Salon with emphasis on the human figure. The Abduction of the Sabine Women is among his finest compositions during this important period.
The narrative refers to an incident in Roman mythology when Roman men abducted women from a neighboring region — known as the Sabines — to take as wives. Under the direction of their founder Romulus, the Romans sought to form peaceful alliances with their neighbors and formally requested the rights of marriage with neighboring tribes. Rome's emissaries, however, were unsuccessful, so Romulus decided upon more drastic measures in order to ensure the security and future of his city. According to Levy, during the festival of Neptune Equester, the Romans successfully fought off the Sabine men and captured the young Sabine virgins, who they then married. Though the action initially resulted in war between the two nations, eventually peace was won thanks to the intervention of the Sabine women, who begged for unity between their families and their new husbands.
Throughout art history, The Abduction of the Sabine Women has been depicted by modern and old masters from Giambologna’s 16th-century marble sculpture to masterpieces in oil by Nicolas Poussin, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacques-Louis David and Pablo Picasso. Millet's treatment of the subject reveals his own influences, most specifically the great French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix.
Although the subject pays homage to Jacques-Louis David’s Neoclassicism, Millet’s use of broad, quick brushstrokes and strong color notes of deep blue-greens and oranges displays a Romantic treatment. In assessing this painting, Millet expert Alexandra Murphy writes, “Only a few documented works survive from this period, and [the] painting is important as a reminder that Millet was looking to the example of Delacroix’s work even more than to his own master, Delaroche.”
Within a few years of creating the work, Millet turned to realistic subjects and moved to Barbizon, where he lived for the rest of his life. By the 1870s, the artist’s work was well established in Boston collections, but it wasn’t until the 1880s that Millet’s popularity spread to other parts of the country. In 1886, two important painting auctions took place in New York at the American Art Galleries: the sale of the Estate of Mrs. Charles Morgan, which included ten works by Millet, and the sale of the Collections of Beriah Wall and John A. Brown. Of the 267 paintings sold in the latter, Millet’s Abduction of the Sabine Women achieved the auctions fourth highest price, just behind Barbizon landscapes by Rousseau and Corot.
Canvas: 24 1/4" high x 19 7/8" wide
Frame: 37" high x 32 1/2" wide
Loan Exhibition of Painting in Aid of the First Light Infantry, Providence, Rhode Island, January 1886
Beriah Wall, Providence, Rhode Island
American Art Galleries, New York, April 1, 1886, lot #246
Joseph Drexel, New York and Philadelphia
by descent to Sofie Dahlgren, Philadelphia
by descent to Phillip Randolph, Philadelphia
Butch McGrath, Scituate, Massachusetts