In the western world today, we often think of the word "virtue" only in terms of Christian virtue. And, indeed, there's certainly much in the way of teachings along that line in the Bible and Judeo-Christian heritage. But if we look at any number of Post-Renaissance paintings from France, Italy, and England especially, we find that religious teachings by no means have a lock on the high minded subject of virtue. As far back as 30 CE, the Roman writer Valerius Maximus compiled nine volumes of memorable deeds and sayings on the subject. His writings might not top any list of best-sellers today, but the art he inspired continues to hang on museum walls all over the world. And, in fact, the paintings themselves have sometimes inspired later artists.
An interesting case in point is Jacques-Louis David's dynamic The Intervention of the Sabine Women from 1799. The incident depicted comes straight from Valerius Maximus. It details the intervention of Hersila, wife of Romulus, as she, and the wives and children she led dramatically stepped between their husbands and fathers and the Romans, as the former stood ready to avenge the Sabine women's having been raped. Some 164 years later, Picasso paid homage to David in his own version, which I mentioned several days ago in a different context. His The Intervention of the Sabine Women (after David) bears little resemblance stylistically or compositionally to David's work but yet manages to convey the same swords-drawn spirit and tension. Actually, Picasso's effort more closely resembles a work by the Italian artist, Guercino, on the same subject dating from 1645 which, in fact, may have influenced David.
French artists, especially, found much in the way of virtue to paint as derived from Greek and Roman history. Jacques Blanchard's St. Sebastian, dating from around 1620, manages to combine both Roman and Christian virtue in his depiction of three Roman nurses caring for the Christian martyr who was condemned to death by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the third century for refusing to renounce Christianity. Usually we see St. Sebastian bound to a tree or pillar and shot full of arrows. In Blanchard's work, there's not an arrow to be found, hardly even any evidence of wounds, as the dying saint mirrors the figure of Christ while the nurses re-enact the pieta elements of his mother. Rubens depicts the similar virtue of a filial devotion from Valerius Maximus in his Roman Charity (1612), a scene involving Pero, a young daughter visiting her semi-nude father, Cimon, in prison where he has been sentenced to starve. She is seen breast feeding him as if he were an infant. The subject's secretive, as well as titillating (no pun intended), nature made this story popular with many artists in both northern and southern Europe.
Other artists such as Nicholas Poussin and Anton Lasenko also chose virtuous subjects from Roman history for their work as in Poussin's The Continence of Scipio (1640) and Lasenko's Hector Taking Leave of Andromache (1772). And quite apart from Roman virtue, we find in England Joseph Wright of Derby painting a group of no doubt virtuous young artists as they sketch and discuss a semi-nude young maiden, in classical statuary form, perched on a pedestal and dramatically lit a la Caravaggio. The painting is entitled An Academy by Lamplight and dates from around 1768. The work was highly topical at the time in that it related to the founding of the Royal Academy that same year as a means of promoting an English school of virtuous history painting in what was then (and now) known as "The Grand Manner."
Today, virtue is not real high on artists' "must paint" list. Even Christian virtue is considered best left to writers, theologians, politicians, and other purveyors of the spoken word. And, notwithstanding recent photos of heroic fire fighters, perhaps that's just as well. Such depictions in the hands of painters would invariably seem corny - overly and overtly sentimental. Today, there seems to be a pretentious quality to painted art that would be seen as cheapening virtue. Virtue must be demonstrated and, in the case of painting, demonstrated with a great degree of drama that, unfortunately, smacks of melodrama in today's soap opera world. The same could be said of the ancient efforts, except that we're prone to excuse such academic excesses in depicting past virtues. vices, on the other hand, are already cheapened, so they, of course, are much more readily apparent in today's arts.