As I was browsing the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art two paintings in particular quickly grabbed my attention. With striking similarities that echo throughout the composition, as well as differences ranging from the subtle to the obvious, these two works of art, when compared side by side, seem to have a conversation unlike any other. The first work, by French artist Nicolas Poussin, was The Abduction of the Sabine Women. It was an oil on canvas piece of work crafted during the mid 17th century during the baroque era. Located two galleries east of this painting was The Death of Socrates. This painting, by another French artist named Jacques Louis David, is also a work created using oil on canvas and was erected during the late 18th century. These two paintings were painted only a little over a century apart and while they share many similarities in their form, structure, and technique, they are also complete embodiments of the respective art styles existing during the eras to which they belong.Order now
The style of art used in The Abduction of The Sabine Women was defined by a movement known as baroque art. By definition Baroque art was thought of as a style of art that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance and grandeur in all forms of art. As you can see from Poussins composition, crowded with energized figures moving throughout the scene, as well as some figures who seem to be crying out in agony, reaching towards others in such a dramatic way, overall increasing the intensity of the scene.. No matter where you look in this painting there is always a figure doing something. This something can range from the horses in the background who almost get lost amidst all of the chaos to the man standing in the left foreground of the painting who seems to be looking into all of the chaos with probably the calmest demeanor of everybody present.
This contrast between figures in the image really interested me. It forced me to wonder who was this man and why, while everybody around him seemed to be clustered together, moving and rushing around, was he looking on, saying or doing almost no more than just lifting his robe with a half smile on his face. I believe that this contrast is quintessential of the baroque period and without this figure, as well as the two behind him, maintaining this calm demeanor, the piece would not be as sound in composition. Having something like this figure in the foreground ties the chaos together giving me as the viewer time a place to rest my eyes from time to time.
Upon reading the description of this piece I found that this figure was Romulus, who was an important figure in many classic roman myths, and the raising of the cloak was his signal to his men to begin the abduction of the women, which would explain his mood in the composition. I still feel as though his presence within the image was a conscious decision of the artist that has a direct effect on the composition of the painting.
The style of art used in The Death of Socrates was defined by the art movement known as Neoclassicism. This art style is defined by exactly what it sounds like, a revival of classic art performed in ancient greece and rome. All of the art produced throughout this time period, beginning within the 18th century, drew its inspiration from the classical art and cultures of these two time periods and this painting, The Death of Socrates, is a very good example of this revival. The figures represented in the painting by Jacques Louis David are very symbolic of the figures often portrayed in greek sculpture. While there is no physical motion within the image, like the motion within The Abduction of The Sabine Women, the level of emotion depicted within the scene is extremely similar.
The disciples of socrates surround him in his dying moment with looks of agony and grief, some can not bare to look, while others are simply leaving the room due to the overall intensity of the scene. Regardless of the emotion drawn from the disciples within the scene everything is very orderly and neat. This being a recurring theme in many classical paintings. I feel as though most classical paintings have some sort of order to them which allows me as the viewer to look at them without being overwhelmed. The faces of the figures within the paintings are very detailed, however they lack emotion. ALl of the real emotion within the piece is derived from the bodies of the figures. In The Abduction of The Sabine women, you can read the emotion of the people by looking at their faces, however, I can not say the same for the faces within The Death of Socrates. The faces have almost no emotion and stare blankly. While socrates raises his hand in a protest, or perhaps because he is saying something, his face remains stoic, and unchanged which conveys the emotion, or lack thereof in the scene. The two disciples behind him that look forward, also with blank stares on their faces just like socrates in front of him. It just seemed as though, while looking at this painting, it was hard for me to draw myself away from these three faces and how absolutely lifeless they were to me. They kept bringing me back and overall it affected the way I read the composition.
Other quintessential elements of the classic art period that reside within this piece would have to be the color palette chosen. The tones are very muted, nothing too bright nor vibrant and also a profound use of both red and blue tones appear throughout the painting. The depth, as shown in the hallway to the left side of the painting and the overall fogginess of the painting, I feel, are also recurring themes that seem to happen throughout classical and neoclassical painting. In The Abduction of The Sabine Women there are no clear lines of sight to the back of the image, like the tunnel present in The Death of Socrates. Even with this tunnel the foreground of the image seems to lack depth and overall the painting seems very flat. By contrast, The Abduction of the Sabine Women has a lot of depth which could be due to the presence of all of the figures taking up the frame of the painting. There are many layers of characters within the image while The Death of Socrates really only has one or two layers present within it, thus making it appear flat as I was viewing the image.
While painting these images and laying down the brush strokes the artists took very similar approaches. Theres very little remnant of the artists hand in the work, including the lack of a signature. Signatures seemed to be occurring a lot in paintings during this time period of the artistic world. The only difference I was able to see between the two artists styles, was the fact that, although it was a newer painting, The Death of Socrates had quite a few cracks displaced throughout. I found this weird because if this painting was over a century older than The Abduction of the Sabine Women then why would it looked more aged and disheveled? Perhaps this was a conscious choice by the artist to pay further homage to the classical artists where he took his influence from. The form in which the figures arranged the figures and subject matter within the image seem to resemble each other as well. Both sets of figures are very triangular, with the most important figures, Socrates and Romulus, being the top most point of the triangles.
This is a significant theme that appears quite often in classic and renaissance art. Lastly, in regards to form I would like to mention the dimensions of these paintings. The abduction of the Sabine Women was notably larger than the Death of socrates. Height wise its about nine inches larger, and width wise it is about five inches longer. This difference allowed the artist to engrain more detail into every part of this painting which in turn allows me as the viewer to pick it apart much easier.
I found both of these paintings extremely interesting and also good in their own respects. They are both very good examples of the styles of art that were going on during the times to which they belonged. While they were truly only about one hundred years apart, the two paintings had many differences that set the standard for the time periods that they were produced. They also shared many similarities, and themes that continue to echo into art even during modern times.