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A Ruin: Jacques–Louis David’s Sabine women

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Abstract:

The Exhibition of the Sabines (1799–1805) is a lost work of Jacques-Louis David, which belongs to a genre that today we call ‘installation’: an artistic device, formed by the relationship of several objects arranged in a three-dimensional space. This work has been widely neglected by historians, who have often viewed it as no more than a secondary manifestation of the painter’s activities: this independent exhibition, for which a fee was charged, would only be an accessory element, contributing to the context of reception for what constituted the work of art as properly defined, the painting of the Sabines. Nonetheless, it remains possible to consider, taking into account contemporary sources, the material organization of the exhibition as the creation of a (fictive) artistic environment arranged three-dimensionally, resulting from the relationships which are established between the painting, a mirror (whose identification as a ‘psyche’ remains undecided) and the presence of viewers. This creation was productive of both formal (aesthetic) effects and symbolic meanings, which authorize us to speak in terms of the ‘oeuvre’. One of the most fundamental characteristics of this atypical object is the fact that it has not been conserved. Its temporal existence limits its appearance to a theatrical representation or, in contemporary terms, to a performance or to another kind of temporary intervention: installation, oeuvre in situ, happening, etc.

Document Type: Original Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-8365.00070

Affiliations: Paris

Publication date: September 1, 1997

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