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Analysis of Jacques-Louise David's Oath of Horatii

What Is the Oath of Haratii About?

David's oil painting captures the defining moment when the sons pledge an oath to fight to the death for their family and Rome. The painting depicts a Roman legend recounted by Roman historian Livy. The story speaks of a political conflict between a rivalling family near Alba and the Romans. Elected representative combatants were selected to settle the dispute. The Albans chose the Curatii as their representatives while the Romans chose the Horatii. The painting features the Horatii.

The women grieve within the painting as the two families are united by marriage. One of the women is a daughter of the Curatii while the other, Camilla, is engaged to one of the Curatii brothers. At the end of the legend, the sole surviving Horatii brother kills Camilla, who condemned his murder of her beloved, accusing Camilla of putting her sentiment above her duty to Rome.

The moment which must have preceded the battle, when the elder Horatius, gathering his sons in their family home, makes them swear to conquer or die.”

— Jacques-Louis David

Jacques-Louis David's Oath of Horatii

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 3.3 x 4.25m, commissioned by Louis XVI, painted in Rome, exhibited at the salon of 1785 (Musée du Louvre)
Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 3.3 x 4.25m, commissioned by Louis XVI, painted in Rome, exhibited at the salon of 1785 (Musée du Louvre) | Source

Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1785

What Is Neoclassicism?

Neoclassicism was the revival of a classical style or treatment in art, literature, architecture, or music. Neoclassical artists utilised line and colour to accentuate the focal point, illustrating shadows, the curves of clothing, and skin tone to create realism. Often this incorporated Greek and Roman clothing such as the tunic as represented in Jacques-Louis David’s, "The Oath of Horatii."

In the arts the way in which an idea is rendered, and the manner in which it is expressed, is much more important than the idea itself.

— Jacques-Louis David

Neoclassicism was the result of the Enlightenment period when the 17th and 18th centuries was emphasising reason and individualism rather than tradition. Neoclassicists believed that art should be cerebral, not sensual. Hence, Jacques-Louis David believed that artworks should take a clear, delineated drawing and modelling (shading). Moreover, the Neoclassical surface had to look perfectly smooth without evidence of brush-strokes.

Neoclassicism and Romanticism

David, Jacques-Louis

Self-portrait by Jacques-Louis David, oil on canvas, 1794; in the Louvre, Paris.
Self-portrait by Jacques-Louis David, oil on canvas, 1794; in the Louvre, Paris. | Source

Who Was Jacques-Louis David?

Nineteenth-century painter, Jacques-Louis David (born Aug. 30, 1748, Paris, France—died Dec. 29, 1825, Brussels, Belg.) was a revered artist due to his role as a central figure that advocated the Neoclassical style, which was a reaction against the previous art movement, the Rococo period. His most famous works include "The Death of Marat" and "Napoleon Crossing the Alps."

Analysis

David's oil painting captures the defining moment when the sons pledge an oath to fight to the death for their family and for Rome. The daughter and daughter-in-law sit motionless behind the father as they deal with the fact that someone they love, either their brother or lover, will die soon. Even though the artwork portrays pain and sorrow, it also promotes values such as valour, sacrifice, morality, duty and selfless service.

Close up of the brothers

The Horatii brothers (detail), Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 3.3 x 4.25m, commissioned by Louis XVI, painted in Rome, exhibited at the salon of 1785 (Musée du Louvre)
The Horatii brothers (detail), Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 3.3 x 4.25m, commissioned by Louis XVI, painted in Rome, exhibited at the salon of 1785 (Musée du Louvre)

The Brothers

As demonstrated through the figure’s poses and the architectural layout. The floor creates a stabilising effect as it diminishes in a perspective drawing to emphasise the arches that the building in the background makes. As a result, the arches suggests the isolation and the family ties. The first arch in the image is two Roman brothers composed to create the model soldier. The posture of the men signifies stability as both legs apart whilst an arm extended to loyalty.

This signifies the state of chivalry and comradery as they pledge allegiance to the state and family through the Horatti brother's self-sacrifice. Their posture evokes ideas of determination, however appearing unambiguous through their stony profiles rather than the dynamism found in romantic artworks, such as the Theodore Gericault's, "The Raft of Medusa." Furthermore, ideals of heroism is evoked through the Horrati brothers' attention to their father. These figures are constructed with stiff, geometric forms that contrast with the flowing, curved poses of the women.

Close up of the father

The Oath of Haratii
The Oath of Haratii

The Second Arch

The second arch depicts the father's heroic stresses regarding the loyalty to the Republic. He holds swords to his sons to solemnly make, "The Oath of Haratti." Contrasting light colours make the swords the focal point. The clinical light starkly contrasts with the heightened drama of the scene, with David inviting the audience to respond with a mixture of passion and rationality. This captures a moment in the artist's life and utilises the pyramid which signifies the balance and clear composition in the painting. Consequently, the artist uses the pyramid structure to violently create a passionate and chaotic atmosphere.

Close-Up of the Women

Women (detail), Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 3.3 x 4.25m, commissioned by Louis XVI, painted in Rome, exhibited at the salon of 1785 (Musée du Louvre)
Women (detail), Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 3.3 x 4.25m, commissioned by Louis XVI, painted in Rome, exhibited at the salon of 1785 (Musée du Louvre)

What's Shown in the Third Arch?

The third arch depicts Sabina Haratti leaning towards her sister Camillia. Camillia is to be executed by her brother after traitorously lamenting the death of her lover. The women become the personification of grief and tragedy as Camilia and Sabina are captured in a singular moment in time.

Sources:

Neoclassicism on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Nicolas Poussin on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jacques-Louis-David-French-painter

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/monarchy-enlightenment/neo-classicism/a/neoclassicism-an-introduction

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/monarchy-enlightenment/neo-classicism/a/david-oath-of-the-horatii

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