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As Roe Falls, a 1789 Painting of GrievingWomen Brings Unlikely Solace

By: Kobe Cheng

From the perspective of Kelsey Ables, on June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court

decision overturning Roe v. Wade would have deeply frightening consequences. On social

media, people devastated by the news reported ghost period cramps, nausea, and headaches.

At a time of restricted rights, war, and rising violence, Jacques-Louis David’s ‘Lictors Bringing

Brutus the Bodies of His Sons’ makes feeling the pain look brave.

During seemingly regressive times, Ables turned to an unlikely place: an 18th-century

representation of women overcome with emotion. At first glance, Jacques-Louis David’s 1789

“The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of His Sons” seems like it only supports sexist

stereotypes. It depicts one of the first Roman consuls sitting in shadows as his officers bring in

the corpses of his two sons that he had executed for alleged treason. The painting is

propaganda, made to glorify sacrifice on the eve of the French Revolution.

As she heard about bereaved mothers of shooting victims, she returned to this image of

bold, full-bodied anguish. And when Roe was overturned, she found validation in their warriorlike approach to emotion and how the women in the painting made giving one’s body over to anger, shock and grief look not weak, but brave. How through the act of feeling, they seemed to claim their bodies as their own.

Ables states, “It’s not simply that art is more powerful in person. This was different. The

painting tells a story about the body through the body. The story stretches from the muscular

biceps of the servant in the corner, suggesting grief is a weight she has lifted before, to Brutus’s tense brows and bunched-up toes, struggling to maintain a bearable numbness. Then there is the trio of tormented women. At the Louvre, peering up at the youngest daughter, who has fainted upon the sight of her brothers’ corpses, you can practically feel the blood draining from her head, the breath emptying from her lungs, the sensation shrinking from her arms.”

For a society enamored with vulnerability and self-care, we remain fearful of emotion.

She said that we cringe at tears, tiptoe around grief, and cushion blows to our fragile composure with jokes. She quotes, “We might find that the hierarchy that places reason above all else is a faulty one, weak as the fabric dividing the two spheres of this canvas. And as rights are restricted in a post-Roe reality, instead of regarding our emotions with skepticism or shame, we might embrace them with head-lifting, spine-straightening pride. In those fierce reactions, there is a reminder: Your body, which feels so fully, is yours.”




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