The Portrayal of Women in Neoclassical Art



Neoclassical art was male dominated and saw the women’s forms and women’s roles depicted in different ways from their male counterparts. From prominent and powerful characters as seen in Jacques-Louis David’s L’intervention des Sabines,to less powerful roles but prominent characters as in Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Grande Odalisque, to even less powerful roles and less prominent Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii, and many times, none at all. The portrayal of these women points to the level of the involvement of women in neoclassical art and the society at the time in general.

intervetion of the sabines

Jacques-Louis David, L’intervention des Sabines, The Louvre, 1796–1799



This work is an emotionally charged piece from Jacques-Louis David about the political happenings of his time. It is a representation of the depiction of women as prominent and powerful in neoclassical times. The Sabine women had interceded to call for peace between the Sabine king and the Romans. The Romans had abducted the daughters of the Sabines and the Sabines attacked Rome in retaliation. Hersilia, who is the daughter of the leader of the Sabines, was married to Romulus, the Roman leader, and so had strong ties to both parties. Hersilia, who is the most prominent figure in the painting, is in the midst of a battle scene, with her arms outstretched, and bearing no weapons. The two warriors, her father and her husband, one to each of her sides, bearing shields and swords, are half clad and seem to pay attention to her plea for peace. The other women in this scene appear to have thrown themselves to the ground, along with helpless little babies, appealing to the men to stop the war. The women on the ground are half clad and seem to use their portrayal of weakness to make their plea for peace. There is another Sabine woman on her feet in the midground, holding a baby high in the air. She brings to mind that she is a bearer of children, thus, holding high her reason to be heard. Of all these women, the only one who appears to hold the attention of the warriors is Hersilia. She is in foreground with outstretched arms and the warriors have their heads turned towards her.

Hersilia appears to glow more than any other figure in this piece, referencing her royalty and her role in the scene as an advocate for reconciliation. Hersilia’s royalty, her outstretched arms, and the theme of reconciliation is reminiscent of a Crucifixion scene. Jesus who is both Son of God and Son of man has strong ties to both divinity and humanity and so is most qualified to pay the ultimate sacrifice to reconcile God to man. Jesus’ outstretched arms is an iconic symbol of reconciliation which Jacques-Louis David mirrors in his portrayal of Hersilia in L’intervention des Sabines. On account of her position as wife and daughter of royalty, she is the most prominent and powerful figure in this piece. Although the piece is titled L’intervention des Sabines, it is really Hersilia’s intervention, more than the intervention of any other Sabine woman in this piece that brings reconciliation to both warring parties.

diego velazquez Cristo crucificado by Diego Velázquez, 1632, showing a Baroque return to realism and emotion in the depiction



Women in neoclassical art were also depicted in less powerful positions than Hersilia in L’intervention des Sabines but just as prominent. In Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Grande Odalisque, the nude woman is the sole subject. She has her back turned against the viewer, with her head and eyes turned directly towards the viewer. She lays on a bed of crumpled gold, white and blue bed sheets and her torso leans on her left elbow that is propped on a pillow. Her right hand clings a peacock feathered hand fan as it rests on her right thigh. The same right hand also clings loosely to a blue curtain that hangs close to the bed where she lays. She wears a head tie on her head and jewelry on her right wrist.

grand Odalisque

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres Grande Odalisque 1814, Oil on canvas.



Jean Auguste Ingres depicts in this piece, a female nude that is largely disproportional in its longer-than-normal length back, seeming to emphasizing sensuality. The fan she clings in her right hand alludes to a male phallus, adding to the portrayal of sensuality. Little is known of the subject of this piece but that she is “an exotic version of a female slave or harem concubine… a male fantasy of a ‘white’ slave,” whose only aim is to please her master (Stokstad and Cothren 2014). She is the sole subject of this piece yet its rendition is not for her benefit. Her portrayal in this piece points only to her master’s taste and interests. According to Olga Rivera;

Jean-Auguste Ingres’s painting of La Grande Odalisque are closely connected to patriarchal ideology and performance of gender… La Grande Odalisque plays a fundamental role in the construction of the specular image, which makes visible the loss of autonomy, the psychic fragmentation… and perpetual objectification to which the Odalisque is subjected in Ingres’s painting. (Rivera, 2013)

This portrayal, however, is in contrast with the portrayal of the male nude in neoclassical art.  For example, Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat falls under the category of “a series of severely plain Neoclassical paintings extolling the antique virtues of stoicism, masculinity and patroitism” (Stokstad and Cothren 2014). The portrayal of this male nude draws attention to the life and work of Jean-Paul Marat who was a radical journalist. Although Marat is killed in his bathtub, there is obvious care in David’s depiction in this piece to conceal and protect his dignity by showing just enough flesh to deliver information about the subject’s work and cause of death. There is little or no hint of sensuality in this piece.

death of marat

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat, oil on canvas, 1793.


Also contrasting with the portrayal of the woman in the Grande Odalisque is Jacques-Louis David’s Cupidon & Psyché. Although the painting has a theme of sensuality, the male nude is portrayed differently from the female nude. According to Greek mythology, Psyche has just gazed upon the face of her lover, Cupid, the god of love, even if she was never supposed to. She would suffer the consequence of her action by wandering the earth and trying to win back Cupid’s love. Cupid’s sensuality is implied by the crumpled, red bed sheet covering his dignity. His character as a mischievous fellow is of higher importance as David depicts him with an obvious grin on his face with, sitting carefreely on the bed. The manner in which David portrays Cupid’s figure in this piece places his sensuality secondary to his character. Psyche on the other hand is portrayed as the embodiment of sensuality. There is obvious care to deliver this sensuality to the viewer even if Cupid is positioned right in front of her. Her full breasts and naked body are exposed and her right hand is strategically placed in between Cupid’s thighs. Her left hand is thrown over her head, further suggesting carefree sensuality. Cupid represents love, attraction, and affection and Psyche is the goddess of the soul in classical mythology. Even if Cupid is the more likely of the two to be portrayed with extravagant sensual qualities, judging by what they represent, he is the lesser objectified figure in this piece.

cupid and psyche

Jacques-Louis David: Cupidon & Psyché,1817. Museum of art, Cleveland.


There were instances were women were depicted as less powerful and less prominent than the male characters in the composition of neoclassical art pieces. Jacques-Louis David’s most successful piece is The Oath of the Horatii. It depicts a scene from the Roman Legend where three brothers from the Roman Horatii family agree to fight three brothers from Alba Longa’s Curatii family to end the war between the two cities. They are fully clothed and ready to fight. They are shown saluting their father and pledging to fight and die for Rome. He holds out their three swords as he willingly sends them out on this mission. Behind these men are three women and two children who mourn the possibility of being bereaved. According to Stockstad and Cothren;

The power gestures of the young men’s outstretched hands almost pushes their father back. In contrast to the upright tensed muscular angularity of the men, the group of swooning women and frightened children are limp… David’s composition which separates the men from the women and children spatially by the use of framing background arches, dramatically contrasts the young men’s stoic and willing self-sacrifice with the women’s emotional collapse (Stokstad and Cothren 2014).

Oath of HoratiiJacques-Louis David Oath of the Horatii , Oil on canvas, 1784- 1785



Camila, who is a sister to the three Horatii brothers is also betrothed to one of the Curatii brothers, and so, is sure to lose someone that she loves. Camila bears a central role in this story, considering that she is the most important factor that ties these two families together but is relegated to the background along with the other less conspicuous characters in this scene. The execution of this piece by David and its reception by the public makes, clear what qualities and roles were relevant to David’s society at the time. “Originally a Royal commission, it quickly and ironically became an emblem of the 1789 French Revolution…” (Stokstad and Cothren 2014). Camila clearly does not wield as much power over the situation as Hersilia in L’intervention des Sabines.  Even if they share a similar tie to the men involved in both wars, Camila plays a lesser role in this piece.

There were neoclassical art pieces that omitted women altogether. As the subjects or the patrons involved in these paintings progressed higher in society, they featured less women. There were only a few women who were relevant in the politics of neoclassical times and the higher up the social strata, the fewer women that were involved until they disappeared altogether. The highest-ranking women in the society were so placed by virtue of the influence of the men they were involved with or had ties with.

It is worthy of note that the portrayal of these women showed that the roles of women in the neoclassical society were not as recognized as those of their male counterparts because of how they were portrayed in neoclassical art. The highest-ranking women in society were so placed by virtue of the influence of the men they were involved with or had ties with as in the case of the earlier mentioned Hersilia in L’intervention des Sabines, who was a wife and daughter to two prominent leaders. Ingres’ Grande Odalisque, was painted by one of the most notable painters of that time because the male patron could afford the cost. Also, in Jacques-Louis David Oath of the Horatii, where such is not the case, the presence or role of women was mostly relegated to the background or are not present at all. The inclusion or lack of women in these pieces as well as their roles in them give important insight into the actual roles and positions of women in neoclassical times.



Stokstad, Marilyn and Cothren, Michael W. Art History. Fifth Edition. London. Pearson. 2014.

Gutwirth, Madelyn. Corneille’s Horace & David‘s oath of Horatii: a chapter in the politics of gender in art. New York. Peter Lang. 2011

Louis, David. “The oat of the Horatti” by Jacques-Louis David. Master Drawings association. Vol. 6, No 1. 1968

Francis, Henry S. Jacques-Louis David: Cupid and Psyche.Vol. 50(2). 1963.

Rivera, Olga. Allusions to Giselle and La Grande Odalisque in building Tamara Kerensky’s subaltern Subjectivity.  England. Routledge journals, Taylor and Francis LTD. 2013.

Jacques-Louis David. L’intervention des Sabines. The Louvre. 1796–1799. Web Gallery of Art. 2 December 2015

Diego Velázquez, Cristo Crucificado. 1632. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Web Gallery of Art. 2 December 2015

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Grande Odalisque 1814, . The Louvre. Web Gallery of Art. 2 December 2015

Jacques-Louis David. Death of Marat. 1793. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Web Gallery of Art. 2 December 2015

Jacques-Louis David.  Cupidon & Psych. 1817. Museum of art, Cleveland. Web Gallery of Art. 2 December 201 5

Jacques-Louis David Oath of the Horatii . 1784- 1785. Museé du Louvre. Web Gallery of Art. 2 December 2015







Published by nightinjayxx

Artist in the Oven

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