Hendrik van Balen’s interpretation of the Rape of the Sabines in a newly discovered work
Both Van Mander and Van Dyck viewed Van Balen as
a figure specialist and with good reason: he often added
figures to the scenery painted by the most celebrated
landscapists in Antwerp, especially Jan Brueghel the
Elder.20 Van Balen was part of a group of Antwerp
painters who worked collaboratively, attended banquets
together, lived near each other, and even travelled
together.21 For example, by 1604 he lived on the
same street, the Lange Nieuwestraat, as Jan Brueghel
the Elder, and in 1613 he travelled with a group of
painters, including Rubens, on a diplomatic mission to
Haarlem and perhaps Leiden. However, although he
often collaborated with landscape painters, there is no
evidence of their contribution in the Rape of the Sabines.
Indeed, the barren mountains and the middle ground
filled with figures rather than lush vegetation suggest
that the painting is the work of Van Balen alone.22
The Rape of the Sabines illustrates an episode from the
legendary history of ancient Rome.23 The Romans,
unable to obtain wives peacefully, staged a festival,
invited the neighbouring Sabines, and, at a signal from
their leader Romulus, each violently seized a Sabine
woman. At the centre foreground of the painting a
young man, wearing armour reminiscent of ancient
Rome, seizes a Sabine woman around the waist,
making clear the violent sexuality that is at the heart of
this subject. He lifts her so that her feet cannot touch
the ground, insuring her impotence. She turns away
from him in a futile effort to escape, flinging up her
arms in a gesture of distress and protest, and raising
her large watery eyes to the heavens in an expression of
despair. Her bun has loosened, and her dishevelled hair
falls around her shoulders. Her clothes are in disarray,
her bodice partially unlaced, her breasts exposed.
Van Balen reveals her lower legs and contrasts their
light colour with the bronzed skin of her assailant.
He further accentuates her sensuousness through the
olive-coloured satin cloth that flutters before her, and
the luxuriousness of her garments, whose gold patterns
are painted on luscious rose and creamy white. The
sumptuousness of her clothing and the jewelled chain
that falls over her shoulder and clasps the olive cloth
make clear that she is a member of the elite class.
Beneath this central group, a young woman and elderly
woman have fallen to the ground. The elderly woman
crouches low, while the young woman, hair dishevelled,
turns to the viewer with a frightened expression, as the
soldier towering above them tramples their garments.
To the left, a second Roman, wielding a long-handled
spear, draws blood from the shoulder of a fallen Sabine
warrior who still grasps the hilt of his sword, having
failed in his attempt to defend the women. At the far
right, a third Roman soldier mounts a staircase while
gazing up at the woman whom he lifts in his arms,
which encircle her hips. A phallic sword, silhouetted
against a light-coloured cloth, dangles between his legs,
alluding to his sexual intentions. His victim throws her
arms out in protest and turns away from her abductor
so that the viewer cannot see her face. Her dark body is
dramatically silhouetted against the light sky, her nudity
eroticized by the two cloths – one crimson, the other
transparent – that flutter against her body. Restless
white highlights on the transparent cloth underline the
victim’s agitation.
To the left of this couple, two frightened children are
pressed by the crowd. Beside them, a Sabine woman
exchanges glances with a Roman soldier as he chases
her. Her drapery has fallen off, baring her back as she
flees with one arm raised. To the left of the central
couple, in the middle ground, an equestrian soldier
seizes a woman around her waist, while she looks
imploringly towards an elderly man, presumably her
father, who returns her glance but is unable to help
her. She extends one arm, but is also helpless to stop
her violation. Like the fallen young woman in the
foreground, she wears a sparkling pearl earring, which
makes clear once again that the seized women are
no ordinary Sabines, but rather those of high status.
Perhaps this is Hersilia, Romulus’s future wife, since
Hendrik van Balen’s interpretation of the Rape of the Sabines in a newly discovered work
just above the father figure at the left edge of the
painting, a soldier, who may be Romulus, stretches his
arm out in a commanding gesture. The outstretched
and highlighted arms of so many distressed women
form a staccato rhythm that leads the viewer’s eyes
across the painting.
Van Balen suggests distance in part through shifts in
colour. Figures nearer to the middle ground are painted
in full, but subdued, hues. Those further away are
rendered largely in grisaille. Both zones are filled with
Romans assaulting Sabines. A military note is sounded
by the blowing of the bugle, the glittering metal helmets,
the galloping horses, and the unfurled flags. The victims
are not an opposing army, however, but rather unarmed
women who are acutely distressed as they futilely try to
escape their assailants. One, seen as a dark silhouette
just above the right hand of the woman in the centre
foreground, runs straight towards the viewer. Further
to the right, a Roman removes a woman’s clothes with
both his hands as she pulls away, visibly distraught.
A second Roman assailant cradles her head. Nearby,
just above the left hand of the large central Sabine,
the crowd clears to reveal yet another chase scene.
Further to the right, a soldier seizes his victim’s wrist.
The grasped wrist, loosened hair, dishevelled clothes,
men pursuing women, and outstretched arms seen
throughout Van Balen’s painting, are all traditional signs
denoting rape.24 Van Balen also visualizes the chaotic
swirl of the crowd, which includes a few turbaned
soldiers. In the far distance he creates a desolate mood
through grey-leafed trees, barren mountains, a ghostly
cityscape, and a gloomy sky.
Van Balen’s Rape of the Sabines is extremely large.
Whereas the average size of paintings that he produced
between 1609 and 1625 is 60 x 80 cm, this panel
measures 174 x 187.4 cm.25 For this reason, it was
probably commissioned rather than made on speculation
for the art market. But who might have commissioned
it? Only twenty-four of the 204 paintings that Werche
attributes to Van Balen are of comparable or larger
size, and more than half of these are religious, mostly
intended for churches in Antwerp.26 Of the secular works
in large format, only one patron is known; two allegories
of the senses were sent from Flanders to Spain in 1623
for Isabella of France, the queen consort of King Philip
IV.27 Scholars have explored the taste among aristocratic
rulers for imagery of Greek and Roman gods and
heroes forcibly seizing women for sexual purposes, which
reflected their own potency and offered a justification
for autocratic actions.28 Of Van Balen’s “heroic” rape
scenes, only one early owner is known. A small Rape of
Europa belonged to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in 1659.29
For these reasons, it is certainly possible that a king or
aristocrat commissioned the Rape of the Sabines.
However, other types of patrons could have ordered
such a painting and for very different reasons. Wealthy
merchants are known to have collected paintings of
classical themes. For example, Emmanuel Ximenez,
one of the wealthiest men in Antwerp, whose family
had a commercial network on three continents, owned
a Rape of the Sabines.30 Ximenez’s interest in classical
culture and his taste in art are made clear in the
inventory composed after his wife’s death in 1617.31 His
library was filled with classical and Neo-Latin texts, and
he was particularly interested in ancient history.32 He
also favoured paintings of nudes and those showing
Roman history and mythology.33 He owned twelve
paintings of the lives of Claudius Civilis and Paulus
Julius, and several heroic scenes of Roman history,
including a battle between the Horatii and the Curatii.
Such themes were, as Christine Göttler observes,
considered appropriate for aristocratic households
and confirm Ximenez’s social ambitions. He also
favoured recently deceased or still living Antwerp
painters, and owned at least one work by Van Balen.
For these reasons Van Balen’s Rape of the Sabines would
have appealed to him, although the painting under
discussion was completed too late to have been included
in the preserved inventory of his collection.


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