Jacques Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii defines the Neoclassical painting style. Creating a sensation due to its striking aesthetic, the work soon became a rallying point for the French as it embodied the ideals and vision of the Revolution.
David was a classically trained French painter who is most noted for popularizing the Neoclassical style, and for signing the death warrant of King Louis XVI. One of the most politically active artists of all time, David’s life would include revolutionizing art, participating in the Great Terror of the French Revolution, serving as court painter to Napoleon, and finally, living out his days in exile. In this post we are going to focus on his pre-revolutionary life, but over the next 2 months I will be releasing posts and videos that will chronicle this fascinating artist’s life.
Studying in Rome changed David’s life, and the course of French art
Winning the Prix de Rome, a prestigious contest that funded 5 years of study in Rome. David set out for Italy saying, “the Antique will not seduce me, it lacks animation, it does not move.” How wrong he was. His life, his art, and his character, would be profoundly shaped by his time in Rome, and his exposure to the ideals of the Roman Republic.
While in Rome, David was drawn to Poussin, Caravaggio, and Carracci. He was introduced to Raphael Mengs, an artist who had embraced the classical art and values of ancient Rome. David was also able to tour the newly excavated city of Pompeii. His immersion into the art and thought of Rome was complete.
David returned to Paris shortly before the French Revolution broke out. He returned with a new aesthetic and brash confidence that would prove to be an exact match to the needs of France’s new government. Quickly admitted to the French Academy, a necessary step for an artist hoping to make a livable wage, David’s talent was rewarded by the King with lodging at the Louvre, and a Royal commission to paint “Horace defended by his Father.” Once he received this commission he declared, “I can only paint Romans in Rome.” With his father-in-law funding the trip, David packed up his family, and with several students traveled back to Rome.
This trip to Rome would solidify his personal style, and usher in the Neoclassical era in French art.
Neoclassical, in short, means new classical. The style developed in reaction to the frivolous, over the top, style of Rococo that exemplified the court life of King Louis XIV in France. Rococo gloried in, and flaunted, wealth, luxury, and hedonism.
As France moved into an era of hard economic times, her people began to resent the excesses of the rich. As the early rumblings for reform grew, so did the demand for a new style of art that reflected the shifts in society.
As the name implies, Neoclassical art refers back to the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome. In particular, this is a resurgence in both the aesthetics and values of the Roman Republic. This idealized understanding of ancient Rome became a template that the emerging post-revolution government of France would gravitate toward. Stoicism, virtue, and reason would be elevated. Personal sacrifices for the common good would be glorified. Nobility would no longer be tied to birth, but to character.
So Neoclassical art hearkens back to classical times in both its aesthetic and message. Using The Oath of the Horatii as our neoclassical model, we can clearly see the work is based on what was known of Roman art. The composition resembles a Roman frieze. We have the flowing drapery of the toga’s of the Caesars, and the classical architecture which recalls the newly unearthed ruins of Pompeii.
The message is as important to David as the aesthetic of Neoclassicism.
Even the message of the painting is Roman. Using a historical narrative that depicts a pivotal moment in Roman history, David gives us a lesson in what it means to be a good citizen. The story of David’s Oath of the Horatii brothers emphasized the need for heroism, courage, and sacrifice, These three brothers willingly sacrificed their lives for Rome, and placed the good of the state above their personal interests.
The themes of self-sacrifice, courage, and loyalty would be needed in the next few years if the revolution was going to succeed. So when we look at Neoclassical paintings we are not just observing a style, but also a message. That message is often wrapped up in what it means to be a good citizen, and promoting the value of reason and rationality over emotion and familial ties. Often Neoclassical paintings would reference historical stories of ancient Rome.
Neoclassical works were exemplified by a simplicity and dignity of style that was highly organized and harmonious. The compositions were often restricted to the midground of the work with very little or no backgrounds included.
In essence, every element of the Neoclassical style contrasted with the Rococo style popular with the court. This juxtaposition of the art of the revolutionaries with the art of the court, emphasized to the world the contrasting values of each group. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of history, art, politics, and the revolution. However, taking advantage of this oversimplification, and black and white presentation of the facts, is what David used to produce propaganda for the Revolutionary government.
Exerting an equal influence on the development of Jacques Louis David and his art, were the Enlightenment thinkers of his day. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that emphasized reason and the evidence of the senses over tradition and fixed dogmas.
In particular, French Enlightenment proponents were opposed to the power of an absolute monarch and to the idea that one man was better than another purely as a matter of birth. They felt reason, not religion should be our source of knowledge, and valued progress, toleration, liberty, and fraternity, believing that men were capable of ruling themselves. The success of the American Revolution and the establishment of a government that separated church and state and was ruled by a Constitution, had put flesh onto Enlightenment ideals, and in France, provided a call to their own revolution.
Denis Diderot calls for ‘virtuous art’
One of the leading Enlightenment thinkers, Denis Diderot, put out a call for art that would lift up virtuous acts, and make vice appear odious. Diderot called out the frivolous nature of rococo art, which glorified the immoral and corrupt behavior of the nobility, glamorizing the very character flaws that were destroying French society.
King Louis XVI was sympathetic to the Enlightenment thinkers, not that he was going to abdicate the throne, but he was instituting reforms. He certainly was not the extravagant monarch that his grandfather, Louis XIV was.
A royal commission on loyalty to the state backfires spectacularly
King Louis XVI appointed Comte D’Angiviller to a position that could roughly be summed up as the Minister of the Arts. D’Angiveller agreed with Diderot that art should improve public morals and his first official act was to ban indecent nudity from the Salon of 1775. (More about the Salon to come)
D’Angiviller also commissioned a series of didactic paintings of French history meant to give moral instructions. One of those commissions went to David with the instructions that the work should be allegorical and teach that citizens should be loyal to the state, or in France’s case, the king. Arguably, patriotism and loyalty to the state are the message of the work, however because the story is about a Republican government, it came to represent the struggle against the King, and the sacrifice needed to establish a Republic modeled after Rome.
When the David’s The Oath of the Horatii was finished and displayed at the Salon in 1885, it created such a stir that the hours had to be extended to accommodate all those who wished to view the work.
David’s journey to becoming the Minister of Propaganda for a revolutionary government begins at the Salon of 1785
I feel the exhibit of, The Oath of the Horatii, at the French Salon of 1785, was David’s first taste of how art can shape politics and thought. We will explore this more later, but I know you might wonder why this long explanation of an art show. In a few short years, David would become a radical revolutionary who would play a key role in the French Revolution. Holding a variety of positions within the new government, including signing the death warrant of the King, and supporting The Great Terror that would execute thousands, David’s key role would be as propagandist. He would use art to sway a nation and portray as noble those who viciously eliminated all who oppose them. David’s journey down that path begins here, with this showing at the Salon.
The Salon was the official exhibition of the French Academy, and the greatest annual (or biennial) art show in the world. For more than a hundred years the Salon, in many ways, ruled the art world and determined what was fashionable in art. Far more than an art show, the Salon had the power to make or break an artist’s career.
We might wonder at the importance of The Salon to Paris society, as it is hard to imagine an art show creating a society wide commotion today. In the 1700’s, however, choices of entertainment were limited, and the Salon showings were free to the public. Art was generally owned by the wealthy nobility and displayed in their palaces, but during the weeks of the Salon everyone could walk into the Louvre and view the best art in France. This made the Salon popular with the people of Paris, while also providing artists exposure to those who might commission a work.
How were works judged for admission
Admission of a work to the Salon exhibition was the goal of every artist and getting past the jury that chose the pieces was no small feat. During the 1700’s the Salon had strict ideas of what constituted great art, and tolerated very little deviation. Among the standards were complex rules of linear perspective, specific guidelines for handling light, and directions on the use of color.
There was a hierarchy of genres in art, and history paintings were the pinnacle of that hierarchy. History paintings were to communicate moral lessons and be painted on large canvases. In the illustration you can see the size of David’s The Oath of the Horatii compared to portraits and landscapes. The work measured approximately 10 ft.. by 13 ft, and even displayed close to the ceiling it commanded attention.
David plants stories of his demise to assure a good showing
Evidently wanting to boost the odds that he and his painting would create a stir, David had set out a story that he’d been killed by robbers while traveling from Rome back to Paris. The story spread, and many flocked to see the work of the promising new artist who had met a terrible fate. Then, miraculously, David appeared at the show unharmed, and his work was drawing record crowds. The hours of the Salon had to be extended during the 8 weeks the work was on display. No one had ever seen a painting quite like this before. Johann Winkelman, another Neoclassical artist described it as having a “noble simplicity and sedate grandeur”.
The Legend of the Horatii Brothers
The story of the Oath of the Horatii is taken from the writings of Livy, an ancient Roman Historian. His History of Rome wound together legend and historical fact. In that history we find the story of the Horatii brothers.
At that time Rome was not a united kingdom, but a collection of city-states or tribes. The Roman’s and the Alban’s were at war, however, the two shared a common enemy…the Etruscans. Rome and Alba were anticipating a battle with the Etruscans and didn’t want to weaken their armies by fighting against one another, so they came to an interesting compromise. The leaders decided that each of them would choose 3 warriors who would battle to the death. Whoever won in this contest would rule the other, and then, they would fight together against common enemies.
In a moment of supreme symmetry, each side choose triplet brothers to be their champions. The Romans selected the Horatii brothers, and the Albans selected the Curiatti brothers. To complicate the story further the Horatii and Curiatti families were linked by marriage.
Camilla, a Horatii, is betrothed to one of the Curiatii fighters. Sabina is a Curiatius, and her husband is Horatius. For the women this fight cannot end well, they will lose either a husband or brother.
At the end of the day there is one Horatii brother left standing, everyone else is dead on the field of battle. Despite the loss of two brothers the Horatii were victorious and the Romans returned home jubilant. As they approached the city, the one surviving brother saw his sister Camilla weeping because her beloved fiance was dead. The brother, enraged that his sister put her personal sentiments above her duty to Rome, drew his sword and killed her.
Many artists have chosen to paint the moment that Camilla is killed by her brother, as it is the moment of highest drama, but David has chosen to represent a moment that is not recorded in Livy. Instead he gives us a moment he imagines happening, the moment the father asks his three sons to sacrifice themselves for the republic, and to swear to fight to the death.
Reading David’s Oath of the Horatii
The Oath of the Horatii celebrates stoicism, masculinity, and patriotism. Despite it’s sculptural feel, the work conveys intense emotion and physicality. While there is drama and intensity to the work, the action is frozen in this moment. Everything in the painting is controlled, balanced, and purposeful. We can feel David’s desire to eliminate any unnecessary details, so that our attention is focused on his vision of what the ideal citizen should be.
We have a dramatic scene playing out before us with three groups of figures, each framed by one of the three arches in the background.
There are three figures on the left, a man in the center, and a grouping of women on the right. The scene is a closed composition, meaning all of the action is contained in the picture. In an open composition we see the action spilling off of the canvas, which invites us to wonder what is occurring beyond the picture frame.
Using a closed composition adds to the Neoclassical feeling of the work. There is a constrained, simplicity that focuses our attention. David has removed anything extraneous from the scene so that our focus isn’t divided, but sharp.
Orthogonal lines are normally diagonal lines that an artist draws that recede to a vanishing point. Renaissance artists used this method to create and maintain a consistent perspective in their drawings. A strong use of orthogonal lines gives a painting a stable consistent feeling.
Instead of a vanishing point that is sighted on the horizon of a landscape, David has focused our attention on the fathers hands, surprisingly gripping the blades of three swords. Again, David is focusing our attention on the oath, using the structure of the painting to emphasize the meaning he wishes to convey.
As we focus on the men in David’s Oath of the Horatii we note they are strong, tall, upright, perhaps even rigid in their poses. Their legs form triangles, the most stable form in art. Their arms are extended in straight lines toward their swords as they presumably take their oaths, a posture that will be copied by the Fascists of the 20th century. Their posture emphasizes both their resolve in this moment, and their unity as comrades in arms. The taut, clean lines, portray men who are fully engaged with no reservations about what they are promising to accomplish. Their father raises his arms and his face is resolute as he asks them to pledge their very lives to the cause.
For David, this is the good citizen, men who exhibit strength, loyalty and a stoic resolve. The three brothers reveal no outward emotions, only restrained dignity, demonstrating that they are clearly men of heroic character. The men have a sense of purpose, a strength in brotherhood that is a sharp contrast to the women.
The women are created using curved lines, bending under the weight of the upcoming fight. Their postures are rounded inward, emphasizing that they can’t think past the coming personal and familial loses. They are passive victims with no agency to act. Their weakness indicates the fragility of their character. This portrayal plays to Enlightenment philosopher, Rousseau’s writings that stated women could not be “good citizens” due to their emotional, weak nature which only considered family, not the success of the state.
Even the architectural details in the background echo the strong use of curved vs. straight lines. David depicts masculine resolution in the straight arms and legs of the brothers, reflecting the strong columns in the background. In contrast, female sensitivity is portrayed in the curves of the women, echoing the arches which are supported by the columns.
As we’ve just discussed above, David’s Oath of the Horatii has drawn a clear line between the men’s strength and the women’s weakness. He continues this theme with “gaze.” In art we pay attention to where figures are looking, how they are looking at each other; the eyes give us a glimpse into the inner person.
Here we have all of the men’s gaze, unfalteringly on the blades. They are focused, intent, and we imagine unblinking, as they pledge their lives to this fight.
In contrast, the women’s eyes are closed. Again, highlighting their victimhood, their inability to change or shape their world, they instead, close their eyes, block out reality, and slump in defeat.
Patterns of three provides schematic simplicity which strips the story of David’s Oath of the Horatii to its’ core
Everywhere we look in this painting there are groups of three; three brothers, three women, three blades, three arches and three arms raised in salute.
The three arches frame the work and divide it into thirds. The brothers are framed in the first arch, the women in the last, with the father in the center. The arches highlight the father, who is about to sacrifice his sons for the glory of Rome.
We’ve talked about, but not examined the three swords in the center of the work. Several drawings of the swords have survived, but in the final painting David changed the blades so that only one is a straight blade, the other two are curved blades. Given our earlier discussion on how David has used straight vs. curved lines it has been suggested that the two curved blades are foreshadowing the deaths of the two brothers
The three arms raised in salute as they take their oath is a pose that captured the imagination for many who would view this work. In a few years David would use this same salute when he drew the Tennis Court Oath, where the leaders of France’s revolution swore loyalty to the cause of a Constitutional Republic.
In the next decade many fascist leaders would adopt the raised arm salute, most notoriously, the Nazis.
The 6 men chosen to fight all knew each other
An interesting consideration of the story is that the 6 men knew each other before they fought. Their families had intermarried, they were in-laws, the brothers had met, and shared nieces and nephews. While the men exhibit stoicism at the prospect of going to battle men who were extended family, perhaps even friends, the reality of the situation is that running a blade through someone you know is very different than killing an anonymous enemy.
This line of thought makes me wonder if with the two curved blades David is hinting, that in the heat of the moment, the two slain brothers had paused, had succumbed for a moment to the ‘womanly’ emotions associated with family, and that had been their downfall. They had died because they too were “curved,” weakened by familial love.
In the years ahead, the French Revolution would call on citizens to make just these sorts of choices: will you choose state or family, where do your loyalties lie, and, what are you willing to sacrifice for the glory of France.
Neoclassical art, while wholly new and of it’s time, also hearkens back to the sculptures of Ancient Rome.
The figures in David’s Oath of the Horatii appear sculpted. The physiques of the men are powerful, they go beyond powerful actually. Look at the physicality of the legs, the heavy musculature, even on the knee. The muscled calves have veins standing out. Like the sculptures of Rome, we are presented with an idealized physical perfection.
In the ancient world physical beauty was equated with moral pureness. Artists across the millennia have drawn parallels between internal and external beauty, and so the physical perfection of the men in this work serve the purpose of indicating high moral character.
David was classically trained, and spent years learning to accurately draw the anatomy of the human body, often drawing from Greco-Roman sculpture. In fact, David generally drew his figures onto his canvases in the nude, and then added the clothing. In this way he could be sure the clothing would drape over the body properly.
It has been noted that this work resembles the narrative friezes that adorned the buildings of the ancient world. With little background, all of the action pushed into the middle of the composition, and the frozen feeling of the figures, especially the men, we have a carefully composed tableau.
As David finished this austere composition with its powerful figures he said, “I do not know whether I shall ever paint another like it.”
Color choices in David’s Oath of the Horatii foreshadow Camilla’s death
Another key element to any painting is the artist’s use of color. The most striking color in the work is that of the father’s red cloak. Draping beautifully over his shoulder, the cloak swaths him in red. After just spending a great deal of time writing about religious works it is hard not to associate the red with blood and sacrifice. As this father is sending his sons to battle, and knowing that two will die, I can’t help but feel the father has his son’s deaths (blood) on his shoulders. I doubt this is the message David was making, as he was glorifying what the men in this family were undertaking,
If we go to the women in their more muted colors Camilla’s white gown stands out. White is understood to mean purity and innocence; in this moment Camilla’s innocence is about to be shattered. Camilla will lose two brothers, her betrothed, and finally her own life at the hand of a brother. The world of this family is about to be shattered, and the victory they win (like the French Revolutionaries to come) will be short lived.
On the left, we see the brother in the foreground, the surviving brother, clothed in garments that mimic his father, but with a white cloak slung over his shoulders. His clothing tells us that he will be the only survivor of this battle, and the cloak foreshadows his murder of Camilla, his sister.
David’s Oath of the Horatii and the French Revolution
Not long after this work was shown at the French Salon, David would become embroiled in the tumultuous politics of the French Revolution. As we’ve noted, The Oath of the Horatii created quite a stir at the Salon of 1785, and as revolutionary talk began to grow, this painting became a rallying point. The visual of a “good citizen” pledging his life and fortune to the republic, forsaking family and ease, for the good of the nation held a strong appeal.
We know that visual images can evoke strong emotional responses in both individuals and societies. Think of the image of the World Trade Center just after it was hit and the visceral response it evokes in Americans. That is the power of image, the power of art, and when carefully orchestrated, the power of propaganda.
David would embrace creating propaganda and we will be looking at several of these works in the coming months, but the Oath of the Horatii was the first, perhaps unintentional, propaganda work of the French Revolution.
The original Oath of the Horatii is displayed in the David room at the Louvre in Paris, however it’s not the only copy we have of the work. A replica was ordered from David by the high-ranking courtier Comte De Vaudreuil. It is not quite identical to the original. You can tell it’s the second edition by the distaff with spun thread that is near the women’s feet.
I will be continuing this series on the art of David, so be sure to subscribe if you want to read more about this fascinating artist.
Here is the link to my exploration of David’s work The Death of Socrates.