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Art Analysis of Jacques-Louis David's Neoclassical Painting, Oath of Horatii (1784)

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

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)

What is the Oath of Horatii 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 rivaling 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, Oath of the Horatii, 1785

What Is Neoclassicism?

Neoclassicism was the revival of a classical style or treatment in art, literature, architecture, and music beginning in the 1760s. Neoclassical artists utilised line and colour to accentuate their focal points, illustrating shadows, the curves of clothing, and skin tone to create a realistic effect. This style often incorporated Greek and Roman clothing, such as the tunic 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 of the 17th and 18th centuries, a movement emphasising reason and individualism rather than tradition. Neoclassicists believed that art should be cerebral, not sensual. Hence, Jacques-Louis David believed that works of art should feature clear, delineated drawing and modelling (shading). Moreover, the Neoclassical surface had to look perfectly smooth without evidence of brush-strokes.

Neoclassicism and Romanticism

Jacques-Louis David

Jacques-Louis David. (1794). Self-portrait. [oil on canvas]. The Louvre, Paris, France.

Jacques-Louis David. (1794). Self-portrait. [oil on canvas]. The Louvre, Paris, France.

Who Was Jacques-Louis David?

Nineteenth-century painter Jacques-Louis David, born August 30th, 1748 in Paris, France, 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." He died in Brussels, Belgium on December 29th, 1825.

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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

Jacques-Louis David. (1785). Oath of the Horatii. [oil on canvas]. The Louvre, Paris, France.

Jacques-Louis David. (1785). Oath of the Horatii. [oil on canvas]. The Louvre, Paris, France.

The Brothers

Here we see that the floor creates a stabilising effect as it diminishes in a perspective drawing, emphasising the arches made by the building in the background and suggesting, through the shape of the arches, themes of isolation and family ties. The first arch in the image is made by two Roman brothers, both emblematic of the model soldier. Their posture signifies stability, with the legs positioned firmly apart and the arms extended in a gesture of loyalty.

These elements signify the state of chivalry and comradery as they pledge allegiance to the state and family through the Horatti brothers' self-sacrifice. Their posture evokes ideas of determination, while remaining unambiguous through their stony profiles. This contrasts with the dynamism found in romantic artworks, such as Theodore Gericault's "The Raft of Medusa." Furthermore, ideals of heroism are 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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