Oath of the Horatii | Jacques-Louis David | 1784
If there is a word to define David’s work, the word would be “sublime”. Regarding today’s work, we could write entire book, but I’ll try to resume it the best way I can. However, if you want more information, you can read several longer articles over the internet.
In 1770, the artist participates for the first time in the Prix de Rome sending a painting to the judges. Several interests doesn’t allow him to win, despite he was the favorite in the contest. He only succeeded in 1774, after participating for 4 years. He won a grant from the French government to study in Rome for 5 years.
In the Italian city, David is fascinated by the architecture as well as by the sculptures and paintings; and, for that, he devotes himself to study ancient myths. While in Rome, the political atmosphere in France was agitated and, as propaganda, David paints the Oath of the Horatii, 5 years before the French revolution.
The story tells that Rome and Alba Longa were in war for territories and, to settle the conflict, they decided that 3 Romans would have to fight against 3 Albaneses. The winners would keep the territories. That’s why each city picks 3 champions: Rome chooses the 3 brothers from the Horatii family and Alba 3 brothers from the Curiatii family. But the drama doesn’t end here, because one of the Horatii was engaged with a woman from the house Curiatii and, moreso, one of the daughters of Horatii was married with a member of the rival family.
The painting shows us Horatio, father of the roman champions, holding 3 swords for his sons to battle Curiatii family. On the right, the women of the family weep for her Roman brothers and well as for the Albanese brothers.
The background, almost indifferent, is covered by shadows which highlights the foreground of the family situation. The composition is divided in two areas clearly opposed: on one hand, the father and his sons, not showing any kind of emotion, swore to sacrifice themselves for the city’s sake; on the other, women from the family, at the right, weep with grief for the result of the battle in which is not possible for all to survive. The contrast is even bigger when we notice that the composition, in the men’s area, has lines basically straight and, in the women’s area, has curved lines. This has different psychological effects: the straight lines give us the idea of masculinity, rationality and virtuousness, while the curved lines give us the idea of femininity, emotion and feeling.
But all of the above, as we said, had a political agenda: David, on purpose, used the roman myth to graphic the need of sacrifice France demanded from its people in times of the revolution. And he did it so well that this painting had an immediate success in his fatherland, which allowed the artist, under the grace of Louie XVI, to stay in the Louvre, a privilege granted only to few.
David, later on, would paint canvases strictly political. Still, beyond his reasons, which can be right or mistaken, the one thing that survived is his art. And all… all David’s work is sacred and sublime.