Jacques-Louis David:
The Oath of the Horatii

Click on the picture to see an enlarged version.

    • Oil on Canvas, 10' 10" x 13' 11""
    • 1784
    • Musée du Louvre at Paris

This painting occupies an extremely important place in the body of David's work and in the history of French painting. It was commissioned by the Administrator of Royal Residences in 1784 and exhibited at the 1785 Salon under the title The Oath of the Horatii, between their Father's Hands. The story was taken from Titus-Livy. We are in the period of the wars between Rome and Alba, in 669 B.C. It has been decided that the dispute between the two cities must be settled by an unusual form of combat to be fought by two groups of three champions each. The two groups are the three Horatii brothers and the three Curiatii brothers. The drama lay in the fact that one of the sisters of the Curiatii, Sabina, is married to one of the Horatii, while one of the sisters of the Horatii, Camilla, is betrothed to one of the Curiatii. Despite the ties between the two families, the Horatii's father exhorts his sons to fight the Curiatii and they obey, despite the lamentations of the women.

David succeeded in ennobling these passions and transforming these virtues into something sublime. Corneille and Poussin had already used this same subject and treated it as a sentimental and aristocratic game. Unlike these, David decided to treat the beginning, rather than the denouement of the action, seeing that initial moment as being charged with greater intensity and imbued with more grandeur. And, it was he who chose the idea of the oath (it is not mentioned in the historical accounts), transforming the event into a solemn act that bound the wills of different individuals in a single, creative gesture. He was not the first painter to do so, but certainly the first to do it in such a stirring manner.

The viewer's eye spontaneously grasps two superimposed orders-that of the figures and that of the decor. The first is striking because it is organized into three different groups, each with a different purpose. To the appeal of the elder Horatius in the center, the reply on the left is the spontaneous vigor of the oath, upheld loudly and with a show of strength, while on the right it is a tearful anguish, movement turned in upon itself, compressed into emotion. The distance between the figures accentuates this contrast. To the heroic determination of the men the canvas opposes the devastated grief of the women and the troubled innocence of the children.

The decor is reduced to a more abstract order, that of architectural space--massive columns, equally massive arches, opening out onto a majestic shadow. The three archways loosely correspond to the three groups. The contemplative atmosphere is softened by shades of green, brown, pink, and red, all very discreet. Instead of opening his painting out onto a landscape or an expanse of sky, David closes it off to the outside, bathes it in shadow. As a result, the light in this setting takes on a brick-toned reflection, which encircles his figures with a mysterious halo.

Through David's rigorous and efficient arrangement, the superior harmony of the colors, and the spiritual density of the figures, this sacrifice, transfigured by the oath, becomes the founding act of a new aesthetic and moral order. He onsciously intended it to be a proclamation of the new neoclassical style in which dramatic lighting, ideal forms, and gestural clarity are emphasized. Presenting a lofty moralistic (and by implication patriotic) theme, the work became the principal model for noble and heroic historical painting of the next two decades. It also launched David's personal popularity and awarded him the right to take on his own students.

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