The grieving women in this 18th century painting have a lesson for us
Even as this intense emotion makes its presence known in our body, we are told that it is only in our head. After the decision, opponents quickly piled up, calling the strong responses “hysterical” or calling them overreactions. For many women, this kind of criticism is all too familiar. We are used to having our emotions dismissed, mocked, or used against us as a sign of weakness.
Perhaps that’s why in these difficult, seemingly regressive times, I turned to an unlikely location: an 18th-century depiction of women overwhelmed with emotion. At first sight, Jacques-Louis David’s 1789 “The lictors bringing Brutus the bodies of his sons” may seem like it only reinforces gender stereotypes. Depicting one of the first Roman consuls seated in the shadows as his officers bring back the corpses of his two sons – whom he had executed for alleged treason – the painting is propaganda, made to glorify the sacrifice on the eve of the French Revolution. On the left, the stoic Brutus is the hero, while the grieving women on the right embody the dangers of letting feelings get the better of you. Or so the story goes.
But if that was David’s view, I wasn’t convinced, even after seeing the work in person – during a trip to the Louvre earlier this year. As spring gave way to this dark summer, these women kept coming back to me. Hearing about bereaved mothers of gunshot victims, I came back to that image of bold, full-bodied anguish. Amid calls to protect women and children during the war in Ukraine, I couldn’t help but think that so often it is women, like those in “The Lictors”, who Do protection – carrying the emotional burden for everyone.
And when deer was overthrown, I found validation in their warlike approach to emotion – how the women in the painting made giving their bodies over to anger, shock and grief seemed not weak, but brave. How through the act of feeling they seemed to claim their bodies as their own.
Doris Salcedo used 15,000 needles to portray the pain of gun violence
The first time I saw “The Lictors” was under very different circumstances: late at night, on a computer screen in my dorm room. This was the semester when New York City seemed too loud, the neoclassical campus architecture too cold, my days too regimented, and my home too far away. My angst might have been better assuaged with nostalgic pop songs or a sad movie. Instead, I turned to the feet of Brutus’ dead son.
I couldn’t help but stare at them: long, bony white toes; feet bound in sandals, walking moments ago, now hovering above the stage, graced by celestial light. We don’t see much of the character’s body anymore, so the feet take on this strange duality: they are strangely specific, like a lingering detail of a traumatic memory, but they are also anonymous, underlined by the way the Roman officers content to carry extinct bodies, with a procedural apathy.
The feet lingered in my mind like out-of-context words that you interpret as your own. To me, they represented the great parts of life that disappear with little ceremony – the door to your childhood bedroom closed for the last time, the friend you casually say goodbye to, only to then lose touch to good.
After college, I really wouldn’t want to see “Les Licteurs” until years later, during my first visit to Paris this spring. Displayed on the cluttered walls of the Louvre’s gallery of 19th-century French paintings, near “Liberty Leading the People», and in front of «The Coronation of Napoleon», the painting slipped on me. I stopped, surprised, as if I had crossed paths with someone from my past.
It’s not just that the art is more powerful in person. It was different. The painting tells a story about the body through the body. The story spans from the muscular biceps of the maid in the corner, suggesting that grief is a weight she has already lifted, to the taut eyebrows and curled toes of Brutus, struggling to maintain a bearable numbness.
Then there is the trio of tormented women. In the Louvre, looking at the youngest daughter, who fainted at the sight of the corpses of her brothers, you can practically feel the blood draining from her head, the breath draining from her lungs, the sensation shrinking from his arms. You feel like, like the girl in the center, throwing your hands in front of your face and spinning in the opposite direction – as if you can outrun the reality unfolding before your eyes. Watching the mother rush to her sons, you can feel the propelling power of emotion stretching across the canvas; how it can move through your body and push you into action – if you’re brave enough to endure it.
For a society so enamored with vulnerability and self-care, we remain fearful of emotions. We grit tears, tiptoe around grief, cushion the blows to our fragile calm with jokes. Non-ironic emotion is weak at best, preposterous at worst, and always something to hide.
If we take inspiration from this painting – where stoicism has been pushed into the shadows, leaving emotion in the light – we might venerate not those who simply carry on with their duties in the wake of trauma and injustice. , but those who interrupt them. We might find that the hierarchy that places reason above everything is flawed, weak as the fabric dividing the two spheres of this web.
And as the rights are limited in a post-deer In reality, instead of viewing our emotions with skepticism or shame, we might embrace them with a pride that lifts our heads and straightens our spines. In these fierce reactions, there is a reminder: Your body, which feels so full, is yours.