200 Years before Kusama’s Infinity Room, Jacques-Louis David Invented the Immersive Installation
Following Robespierre’s downfall in 1794, David and other prominent members of the regicidal Convention Nationale were imprisoned. It was there that the already notorious artist developed the concept for his “great aesthetic manifesto painting,” an artwork that would demonstrate both his incomparable skill, and, in the wake of the bloody French Revolution (in which David voted on many an execution), his eagerness to advocate for the reconciliation of the French people.
Five years later, in 1799, David unveiled his masterwork to the Parisian art world. The Intervention of the Sabine Women depicts a legendary event from the Roman empire’s nascent stages. But instead of taking the popular episode of the Sabine women’s abduction by the Romans, David added to the ambition of his project by conceiving of his painting as a “sequel” to Musée du Louvre.
Measuring over 12 by 17 feet, David’s monumental canvas features a less-commonly depicted confrontation when, years later, the Sabines return to the capitol in Rome to rescue their sisters and daughters, but find the women, who now have their own Sabine families, torn between the two sides. Here, Hersilia throws herself between her father, Tatius, the king of the Sabines, on the left, and her husband, Romulus, the king of Rome, on the right. In a pamphlet David wrote to accompany the exhibition, he explained that the essential theme of his painting was love. As Dorothy Johnson has written: “For the love of their families the Sabine women, heedless of the danger to themselves and their babies, rush onto the battlefield to stop a war in which their husbands would be fighting against their fathers and brothers.”
David was deeply concerned with the role of the spectator in experiencing The Intervention of the Sabine Women. In an unconventional move, he declined to show the painting in the Louvre, where many artists, including himself, lived and worked. The official “palace of the arts” was also the site of the crowded salon, the state-sponsored exhibition where the hierarchy of genres determined where works would be hung. (Then considered the denouement of art, monumental history paintings were positioned in such an elevated manner—right beneath the high ceilings—that one couldn’t really see them.) Instead, David cannily organized a focused, independent exhibition of the lone work in a nearby meeting hall that overlooked the courtyard of the Louvre.
His personal stake in the success of the exhibition was high. Although he was a majorly influential authority in the arts, many in the post-Revolution period hated David for his political activities during the Revolution and Republic, and resented his cultural influence. So David took pains to perfect the viewing conditions for The Sabine Women. He oversaw the renovations of the large space, replacing windows with large clear glass to amplify the natural light. Most unusually, however, he set up a large mirror at the far end of the room to reflect the entire composition.
Like Kusama, David wanted the work to be accessible to a broad national and international audience. Although his enemies sharply criticized his uncommon decision to charge a modest admission fee to the exhibition—a means for him to make back the costs of the materials and time spent on the work—vast numbers of people came to see it during the five years it was on view. Contemporary writer P.-J. Chaussard described the audience, rapt in a “religious silence” in the face of the work’s “majestic dimensions”—a reaction that “no doubt flattered the artist more than the loudest applause.”
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.
More spectacularly, viewers before the mirror would have seen themselves reflected in the to-scale scene—culpable in the violence, yes, but more importantly, the entreaty for peace taking place in the shallow, frieze-like composition. David rendered the intervention—rather than the abduction and rape—of the Sabine women to craft his own entreaty to the people of France. On account of the heroic women’s actions, the horseman on the right of the picture sheaths his sword. In the background, soldiers raise helmets and hands in gestures of peace.
The success of the exhibition, and the resultant fame and influence of the painting, encouraged David to use mirrors again, in later exhibitions of The Coronation of Napoleon (1807) and Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces (1824). His inclination to intimately involve his audience in the work has had resounding consequences on our own contemporary age. But while David used these tactics for political aims, later immersive, mirrored installations by present-day figures like Kusama,
Julia Wolkoff is Artsy’s Editor, Art History.