Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1982, pp. 67-76.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


When one considers the body of mid-nineteenth- century paintings of the American West, one is struck by the place of women, especially white women, in them. In the large majority of cases, from George Catlin and Seth Eastman to Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, women are conspicuous by their absence. We know that many women did go west with their husbands, striving to maintain some semblance of the civilization they knew in the rough and primitive conditions of army posts and frontier settlements. But they were an anomoly in such environments; in the popular nineteenth-century view, women, at least "good" women, were perceived as fragile creatures, gentle and delicate, who would wither and die under the harsh conditions of frontier life. Perhaps this attitude explains a tendency on the part of contemporary painters to picture them in rather more academic terms than they did the men. References to Christian iconography, classical sculpture, and, above all, prints and engravings after European masterpieces seem more evident in the few paintings involving women than in those describing the adventures of their husbands. This difference may be due to the fact that it was myth rather than reality that dominated the pictorial presence of women-a myth underscored by the notion that, while men engaged in such manly sports as hunting and exploring and clearing the wilderness, it was the women who personified the advance of civilization into it. Furthermore, the heroic effort of settling into an alien environment and overcoming the emotional and physical hardships inherent in such a transplantation was not lost on the artists of the American West. Thus, in varying degrees, it is in these two roles-as transmitter of culture and heroine of westward expansion-that we must consider the image of the white woman in the frontier West.

Engravings after Jacques-Louis David's Sabine Women of 1799 (Fig. 1), illustrating a classic story of reconciliation brought about by heroic women who had established roots in an alien land, served as an important artistic source for images of the pioneer women. Generally interpreted as an allegorical plea for an end to the internecine bloodshed of the French Revolution, David's picture is an unusual one in the context of previous representations of the ancient legend, for rather than showing the actual abduction of the Sabine women and the beginning of the Roman-Sabine war, David chose instead to illustrate its peaceful conclusion. Indeed, the work reflected a growing revulsion for the excesses of the Reign of Terror and a desire to end the violent conflict that had overthrown the ancien regime. It is also a clear demonstration of what Robert Rosenblum has called the exemplum virtutis, that is, a work of art, usually characterized by a veneration of feminine heroism, that was intended to teach a lesson in virtue. From the late eighteenth century on, this type of painting began to dominate iconographical choice, with particular preference being given to events from ancient Greek and Roman history.

Two aspects of the Sabine women are involved in the translation of that theme to the American West. The first is a formal one in which echoes of David's painting, transmitted through prints and engravings of it, are to be found ih the composition of an American painting. The second is a less tangible connection in which the, idea, rather than the form, of David's subject is to be found in the American example. This article addresses both these aspects of the Sabine women theme in the art of the wild West.

Although it is difficult to document the prevalence of engravings after David's Sabine Women in the United States in the early to midnineteenth century, we do know that the medium itself was an important one in the development of the arts of the young republic. On the one hand it represented a technical accomplishment, an exacting craft in which many American painters were trained. On the other it was the means by which young artists who had not had the opportunity to study abroad became familiar with European paintings. The influence of engraved reproductions after old and modern masters cannot be overestimated in understanding the formation of the aesthetic perceptions of our native artists and of their visual memory. Moreover, at least one specific reference to David's Sabine Women appears in a list of engravings ordered by a Captain Killian for the drawing classes at the United States Military Academy in 1827. It is likely that the newly founded art academies in New York and Philadelphia also found the Sabine Women an appropriate lesson in both drawing and proper sentiment for the students, who thus absorbed its message as well as its form just as they were absorbing classical sculpture from the plaster casts they were expected to copy.

The story of the Sabine women, told by both Livy and Plutarch, offers some relevant parallels to the story of the pioneer women in the American West. Like their American counterparts, the Sabine women had acquired a legendary aura as heroines of peace and civilization, for after having been transportedor in their case abducted-from their own land to ancient Rome, they had nevertheless settled down in the new land and begun to raise their families there. When, some years later, their Sabine menfolk came -to "rescue" or else avenge them, the leader of the Sabine women, Hersilia, how wife of the Roman leader, Romulus, thrust herself between her husband and her Sabine brother, Tatius. Time had reconciled the women to their new home and made it acceptable to them. Herein lies the tie with nineteenthcentury paintings of the frontier West. Like David's heroines, the pioneer woman was expected to accept her removal to a new land, to raise her children there, and to act as an agent of civilization and peace.