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Violence Against Women - From real life to fine art

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

I was listening to the Guerrilla Girls being interviewed by Katy Hessel @thegreatwomenartist and they mentioned that part of the male's fine artists repertoire was violence against women, including rape. Which sent my memory down museum halls trying to remember what I had seen. Violent scenes, battles, but did it completely pass me by that, hang on there, why is that man carrying a woman off and why is that other man pointing a dagger at her? So I decided to find more concrete evidence and see how often violence against women, rape, and other incongruities I could find. I also want to explore the reason the expression "male gaze" sends shivers down my spine.

Growing up as a girl, I was blissfully unaware about the gender inequality I would witness until around the age of ten, when a slightly older boy decided he was going to kiss me and got his younger sister to help him pin me down. As a huge martial arts fan, I was also very good at fighting, and was able to break free. But that was the first time I actually wondered who on earth does he think he is that he can force me to do something I don't want to. This sort of thing happened a few more time during my teenage years - but not with a sister's help, more like two guys, and as they got taller and stronger and I remained rather petite, it was just one on one. Like most women, we get our fare share of the unwanted "male gaze". Making sure we have company when walking down dark streets, or always with a phone at hand ready to call a friend, or always looking at escape routes. So when the term "male gaze" started showing up in reference to fine art, the first thing that comes to mind is the lewd portrayal of women, objectification and hypersexualisation. But actual violence against women made me think that was quite daring, especially on a gigantic canvas for everyone to admire. However, when I gave it some more thought about who would be admiring such things would actually be other men, for they were the ones with the money and power to commission such things. And if the painting is done under the pretext of being a homage to mythology, then who would question it?

The first painting to get many Google hits was The Rape of the Sabine Women. As I mentioned above, nothing like a good mythological story to make it a permissible , and even respectable, subject. Although as I looked further into the theme of rape, in classical myths the word translates as abduction. In mythology, the abduction of the Sabine women is known as an incident lead by Romulus and his followers where the men from Rome abducted women from nearby cities because of the lack of women in their own. His reasoning was that without women, they couldn't increase their population size and make it strong against future invaders. The Sabines, on the other hand, refused to allow their women to marry the Romans as they didn't like the idea of a neighbouring rival society. Not ones for taking no for an answer, the Romans invited the citizens of the neighbouring cities, including the Sabines, to the Neptune Equester festival during which they kidnapped thirty Sabine women. This feat was painted/sculpted by ten male artists:

"The Kidnapping of the Sabine Women" by Giambologna The Three Ages of Man
"The Kidnapping of the Sabine Women" by Giambologna (1582)
  1. Giambologna - a sculpture carved out of one single block of marble (1582) and stands at 4 metres in height. His statue is also known as The Three Ages of Man.

  2. Nicolas Poussin - two large scale paintings. One from 1633-34, the other from 1637-38

  3. Peter Paul Rubens - oil painting between the years of 1635-40

  4. Johann Heinrich Schönfeld - oil painting completed in the late 1630s

  5. Jacques Stella - a painting to similar to Poussin's, it was temporarily misattributed as his.

  6. Jacques-Louis David - unlike his predecessors, Jacques-Louis painted the end of the story where the women intervene to stop the Romans and the Sabine men from fighting. His painting was completed in 1799. This piece has two names: The Sabine Women Enforcing Peace by Running Between the Combatants (also known as The Intervention of the Sabine Women). The theme of his painting was about love prevailing over conflict.

  7. John Leech - created a satirical version of the painting to add to his Comic History of Rome where he depicts the women in Victorian garb being carried off from the pub "Crown and Anchor".

  8. Edgar Degas - Degas believed that to learn he had to copy from the masters, and one of the paintings he copied was Pussin's Rape of the Sabine Women.

  9. Charles Christian Nahl - painted three pieces called The Abduction, The Captivity, and The Invasion.

  10. Pablo Picasso - painted several versions of the painting between 1962-63.

"The Rape of the Sabine Women" by Peter Paul Rubens c.1635-40
"The Rape of the Sabine Women" by Peter Paul Rubens (c.1635-40)

Prior to the Rape of the Sabine Women, Peter Paul Rubens also painted The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus which he completed in 1618.

"The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus" by Peter Paul Rubens
"The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus" by Peter Paul Rubens (1618)

Both these paintings are able to depict the energy and the violence when the soldiers are grabbing the women, lifting them onto their horse and they are quite vivid scenes. The confusion in the Sabine Women, the crowds, men with shields and swords that you can't quite tell if it's aimed at the women on the plinth, or the soldier trying to grab her off it. Soldiers lifting women's skirts, their tops falling off. It's an unnerving piece the more I look at it. In the Daughters of Leucippus, their nudity makes them appear even more vulnerable as these men are dressed and Castor, the son of the King of Sparta is in full armour as if he were battling an equally formidable foe. The other man is Pollux, divine son of Zeus. Again, we have men taking women by force, in this case the women are the daughters of King Leucippus of Argos, Hilaeira and Phoebe, who were engaged to marry the twin brothers Lynceus and Idas of Thebes - cousins of Castor and Pollux. Not ones to take no for an answer, Castor and Pollux kidnapped the women and raped them, after which they gave birth to a child each. There are a few stories as to why Rubens painted this piece and one of them is that it was commissioned by an aristocrat who wanted to celebrate the arranged double marriage of Louis XIII of France and his sister Elisabeth to the teenage Philip IV of Spain and his sister Anne, all of whom were aged between eleven and fifteen.¹

An analysis of the painting was done by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.

I also found several paintings depicting the Rape of Lucretia by Titian, Gentileschi (who, as a woman, has a unique way of portraying her women), Rembrandt (who dedicated two paintings to Lucretia just as she is about to commit suicide), while some artists chose to eroticize the moment of the rape. Another theme was the Rape of Tamar by her half brother Amnon. In both of these, the word rape is quite literal and some of the paintings I came across were rather graphic and violent.

Given this evidence of violence against women in art, it is not surprising that women did not remain quiet and decided to art back! Next week I will discuss the Female Rage in Art and how women fought back against violence aimed at them.


¹Coleman, Sally Whitman. Peter Paul Rubens Needs a Lesson in Romance


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