The Oath of the Horatii

The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David is both an excellent example of French Neoclassical painting (click to read more on Neoclassicism from the Met) and of a very strong composition within a painting.  David chose this subject for his first royal commission.  Neoclassical themes had been popular since the Renaissance and in the mid-18th century
Neoclassical art is defined as a style that was strongly influenced by the art and history of ancient Greece and Rome.  While at the French Academy David won the Prix-de-Rome and spent several years in the city during which time he was strongly influenced by Ancient Roman art and architecture.

The Oath of the Horatii is an interesting story, the battle between the Roman Horatii family and the Curiatii family from a neighboring city was told by the Ancient Roman author known as Livy.  The Horatii brothers are swearing allegiance to Rome on the swords that their father is holding up.  All are ready to die to defend their country.
The Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David, 1784, Louvre, Paris

This is an enormous painting measuring nearly 11 feet high by 14 feet long and the figures were shown as life sized. The focal point for the viewer is the raised hands and swords of the oath, even if the viewer doesn't know the story it can be easily inferred that this is a dramatic event. 

The setting is very sparse and the sparseness works well in framing the events and not detracting from the figures.  To the right we can see the women of the story, their mother and sisters, who are obviously in despair.  This foreshadows the events to come and serves as an interesting counter balance to the strength of the brothers.  One of the sisters was engaged to a man from the rival family and she knows that someone she cares about will most certainly die in the battle.

Why would such an ancient story, one that wasn't a frequent theme be painted in late 18th century France? 

There were several reasons that Neoclassicism became popular at this time.  Visually it was quite a contrast with the frivolous Rococo style that had currently been in fashion.  It was favored by royalty as Neoclassical work reflected the power of the Roman Empire.  It was equally favored by both the American and French Revolutionaries as it tied into themes of self sacrifice and the Roman Republican period.

The ruins of Pompeii were rediscovered in the mid 1700's and in the following years the site was excavated; this led to a new understanding of and enthusiasm for Roman culture.  The 18th century is commonly referred to as "The Age of Enlightenment" and many of the great intellectuals and philosophers were influenced by the rational philosophies of their Classical counterparts.

The Tennis Court Oath, Jacques-Louis David, c-1791, Louvre, Paris
pen drawing with sepia ink wash

While The Oath of the Horatii was commissioned by the French King, David was actually very much on the side of the revolutionaries in the 18th century.  He created the above drawing of the Tennis Court Oath, where nearly 600 members of society gathered less than a month prior to the storming of the Bastille and vowed to remain together until a French Constitution was written.

David was clearly influenced by his earlier composition for this sketch, which he later turned into a painting.  The raised arms created another strong central focal point for the viewer.  Even without knowing the history behind the work the viewer can discern that an emotionally charges and dramatic event is unfolding.  Just as in the other work a symmetrical architectural background frames the scene.

The Oath of the Horatii, Armand-Charles Caraffe, 1791
Pushkin Museum, Moscow

 Armand-Charles Caraffe was a student of David's and he also painted a version of this theme.
Compare the two paintings, by looking at the two very different ways that the artists chose to arrange the figures we can see that the David painting is much more dynamic.  The theme of the Oath that the Horatii family took wasn't a common one and Caraffe would certainly have been influenced by David.  However by reversing the direction of the brother's hands the composition doesn't have as strong of a focal point.  Dramatic tension was also created in the earlier version by the use of chiaroscuro (modeling form with strong darks and lights).

Caraffe does a good job of depicting this and created an interesting work, but Jacques-Louis David's version has remained one of the most iconic images of Neoclassical French painting.

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