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Hersilia’s Sisters: Jacques-Louis David, Women, and the Emergence of Civil Society in Post-Revolution France

Norman Bryson

Political and cultural history and the arts combine in this engaging account of 1790s France.
In 1799, when the French artist Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) exhibited his Intervention of the Sabines, a history painting featuring the ancient heroine Hersilia, he added portraits of two contemporary women on either side of her—Henriette de Verninac, daughter of Charles-François Delacroix, minister of foreign affairs, and Juliette Récamier, a well-known and admired socialite. Drawing on many disciplines, Norman Bryson explains how such a combination of paintings could reveal the underlying nature of the Directoire, the period between the vicious and near-dictatorial Reign of Terror (1793–94) and the coup in 1799 that brought Napoleon to power.
Hersilia’s Sisters illuminates ways that cultural life and civil society were rebuilt during these years through an extraordinary efflorescence of women pioneers in every cultural domain—literature, the stage, opera, moral philosophy, political theory, painting, popular journalism, and fashion. Through a close examination of David’s work between The Intervention of the Sabines (begun in 1796) and Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (begun in 1800), Bryson explores how the flowering of women’s culture under the Directoire became a decisive influence on David’s art. With more than 150 illustrations, this book provides new and brilliant insight into this period that will captivate readers.

Norman Bryson is a professor of art history at the University of California, San Diego. He has published widely in the areas of eighteenth-century art history, critical theory, and contemporary art.   

“This beautifully produced book focuses on Jacques-Louis David’s career during the Directory and the early Consulate, roughly from 1796 to 1801, when he painted and exhibited the Intervention of the Sabines (the book’s catchy title refers to the woman who led them) and also accepted two private commissions, portraits of Henriette de Verninac . . . and of Juliette Récamier. All three paintings are now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. As his subtitle makes clear, Norman Bryson is further concerned with ‘the brilliant flowering of women’s culture’ . . . that took place at the time and the way David responded to this phenomenon.”
—Philippe Bordes, The Burlington Magazine

“Beautifully produced, richly illustrated.”
—A. Luxenberg, CHOICE

“As with any scholarly work, the bibliography is thorough and the notes comprehensive, further adding to its value for specialized libraries and academic programs.”
—Barbara Ann Opar, ARLIS/NA

352 pages
7 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches
168 color illustrations
ISBN 978-1-60606-771-0

Getty Publications
Imprint: Getty Research Institute