As critics of the time begrudgingly noted, the reverse image seen in the mirror demonstrated the absolute perfection of David’s tour-de-force composition. The use of the mirror, Johnson explained, would have been understood by his educated contemporaries; since the Renaissance, artists had employed them as perspectival devices. “The reverse image,” she wrote, “could reveal imperfections in light and color, weaknesses in drawing and perspective, lack of harmony and balance in the placement of objects in space, and so on.” The absolute aim of painting before the invention of photography was mimesis: the mirroring of nature on two dimensional canvas. In this regard, David proved his mastery—the mirror didn’t lie.
But the mirror also had broader philosophical implications. Early in his career, David had altered the course of French art, pioneering the severe Neoclassical style, and reinterpreting classical themes “in which artists…began to see myth in terms of its expression of human psychology and cultural mores,” as Johnson wrote. The dramatic intensity and political ramifications of The Sabine Women would have been immediately clear to his audience, and David also played with the mirror’s reflective possibilities to reiterate the theme of the work: Romulus’s shield, embossed with the word “ROMA,” became “AMOR” in reverse.