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While Nicolas Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women (1634-1635) demonstrates the mass abduction of multiple young Sabine women, Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates (1787) is a depiction of the execution of Socrates. Despite sharing several similarities, the use of colors, techniques, and forms are significant indications of the art periods in which both pieces of art belong to.
Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women is an oil painting on canvas which was initially published in 1634-1635.
Poussin painted another rendition of such an event in 1637-1638. This particular art style which has been portrayed in this painting is known as baroque art. The art style, baroque, started around the 1600s in Rome, Italy and eventually spread throughout the majority of Europe (Richman-Abdou 1). Baroque art can be characterized by exaggerated motion and clear detail which is used to produce drama, emotional exuberance, and grandeur. Furthermore, it can also be characterized by rich, deep colors as well as intense light and dark shadows (Gisbey 34).
In Poussin’s painting it can be seen that there are many figures. The individuals in this painting clearly look emotionally distressed. Their emotional distress is definitely exaggerated by their expressions.
Some individuals can be seen crying, in pain, anxious, while others look fearful. Majority, if not all, of the individuals in this painting are showing signs of movement by running, moving towards one another; especially the men who are picking up, and essentially abducting the women. Regardless of which part of the painting one looks at, there is always a figure either showing signs of emotional instability, or movement, or both.
There are many deep shades of red, blue, green, as well as brown that have been used in this painting. Such colors can be seen on the clothing, background, and on the architecture. Despite having many deep and rich colors, there are also intense light shadows. Much of the light is focused on the horses, arms of the women, as well as a young child who seems to be, in a sense, “stuck” in the midst of the mass abduction. The light shadows help to give the painting a deeper meaning. With the light being focused on the arms of the women in the painting, it can be seen as one of the characteristics of the baroque art style in terms of dramatized movement and light shadows.
As for the light on the child who is in the center of the chaos, they can represent the idea of loss of innocence of the women in the painting (since it is a painting of the Sabine women who were abducted and raped). Furthermore, the light was also shone on the white horse, which happened to be in the background of the painting. The horse is an important presence in the painting. During the surgence of Baroque style, there was also an increase of horses in art. In baroque art, horses can be seen as a representation of opulence. In many cultures, the horse can represent freedom, power, and wisdom. One major fact that should be noted is that during the introduction and rise of baroque art, the Reformation and Counter Reformation was occurring. (Catholic Counter-Reformation Art 1). The baroque style of art was encouraged by the Catholic Church at the time. With this being said, the white horse can also be a symbol of death in Christianity (Horse Symbolism 1). The combination of the wide range of emotions, movements of individuals, multiple rich colors, as well as the symbols utilized in this painting completely demonstrates the art movement in which it belongs—the Baroque art period.
David’s The Death of Socrates, like Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women is an oil painting on canvas that was published in 1787. This painting was published during the Neoclassicism art period. Neoclassicism art, especially paintings, place an emphasis on linear design in terms of classical events, characters, and themes, using historically correct settings as well as costumes. Moreover, such paintings put a focus on the values of simplicity, austerity, heroism, and stoicism. Such values coincide with the values that were being asserted at the time in connection with the French struggle for liberty (Neoclassical Painting 1). Furthermore, the characteristics of Neoclassicism art include a concentration on a protagonist, or more specifically, a heroic male figure. In addition, techniques such as dramatic lighting, clean style with hard edges, and the use of primary colors can be seen in Neoclassicism paintings.
In David’s painting, Socrates can be viewed as a heroic male figure as he can be seen to be accepting of his execution. He is willing to die by consuming hemlock, which is a type of poison. This submission of to death can be seen as heroic due to the historical background of this painting. The reason as to why Socrates was so willing to accept death was due to the fact he would rather die instead of renounce and repudiate his beliefs, ideas, and philosophy (Matteucci 1). Unlike the chaos, in terms of movement, in Poussin’s painting, David’s The Death of Socrates, shows much less movement. The individuals are rather stationary or in a particular pose. The figures in this painting definitely shows signs of emotional turmoil; some who seem to be crying, others with a look of shock, and others who look blank, as if they are unable to process what is truly occuring. This display of emotional disturbance is one of many characteristics that define what neoclassicism art is, which is also a characteristic in Baroque art. There are very few colors being used in David’s painting.
Primary colors such as blue, red, and yellow are definitely present in this painting. Such colors can be seen on the clothing of each individual as well as their surroundings. There is also a darkness cast over the whole painting. However, it is especially dark on the left side which is the side where Socrates is seated. This is quite ironic because there is a light that has been casted upon Socrates’ figure. The darkness of the surroundings brings out the figure of Socrates even more. Due to the surrounding darkness, the viewer’s eyes will immediately move to Socrates, as the darkness allows his figure to look more pronounced. There are a plethora of details put into each individual in this painting. The clothing that they are wearing can be considered to be the type of clothing that people within that time period actually wore. Moreover, all minor details, such as creases, folds, and shadows, in the clothing are all prominent. The style and manner in which each article of clothing is worn (i.e.: draped over the individual’s shoulder, arms, etc.) is very specific.
Furthermore, the bodies of each individual is quite intricate as well in the sense that the viewer can see that their bodies are a realistic depiction of how human bodies look like. One can see the clear details of the muscles, the various skin tones, as well as the type of hair (such as curly, straight, short, etc.) each individual. The wall in the background of this painting is clearly made up of blocks. These blocks are in the shape of rectangles. More geometrical shapes are present in this painting in the form of a rectangular type of stool “chair” (which a man in an orange robe is sitting upon). There is also a bed which another individual is sitting upon—the lines of the bed being very clear. The presence of these geometric shapes reinforce the fact that this painting belongs to the Neoclassicism period. Overall, all the details shown in David’s painting thoroughly demonstrate that this painting is indeed a Neoclassicism painting.
The use of particular color schemes, different techniques, and various forms strongly indicates the art period in which each piece of artwork belongs to. Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, which is an illustration of the utter abduction of Sabine women, is undoubtedly from the Baroque art period due to exhibiting characteristics such as dramatic movements, emotional exuberance, as well as the use of deep colors. On the other hand, David’s The Death of Socrates, which is his rendition of the scene in which Socrates was sentenced to death, is clearly from the Neoclassicism period as it portrays characteristics that is specific to this art period such as a smooth paint surface, minimal use of colors, linear designs, as well as historical accuracy in terms of clothing, appearances, and settings. Such details and styles surely make it clear as to the different art movements these renowned oil paintings come from.
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