Work The Oath of the Horatii
Department of Paintings: French painting
The Oath of the Horatii
© 2009 Musée du Louvre / Erich Lessing
In the 7th century BC, the three Horatii brothers, chosen by the Romans to defy the Curiatii, the champions of the town of Alba, are swearing to defeat their enemies or die. As they receive their weapons from their father, the women of the family are prostrate with suffering. This painting, a royal commission, was the manifesto for a new style, neoclassicism. Both the architecture of the room and the poses of the warriors are rigorously geometrical.
The Horatii and the Curiatii
In the 7th century BC, to put an end to the bloody war between Rome and Alba, both cities designated champions: the former chose the Horatii, the latter the Curiatii. The two families were linked by marriage. Jacques-Louis David depicts the Horatii swearing to defeat their enemies or die for their country. On the right, the grief-stricken women of the family already fear the worst: Sabina, the sister of the Curiatii and wife of the eldest of the Horatii, and Camilla, the sister of the Horatii and betrothed to one of the Curiatii, hang their heads in sorrow, while behind them, the mother of the Horatii hugs her grandchildren.
A new moral painting
David chose this episode in Roman history for his first royal commission in 1784. A Prix de Rome laureate in 1774 and a member of the Académie, he wanted to launch his public career by creating a stir with a radically innovative picture. He forsook the amorous and mythological subject matter of his first teacher, Boucher, for the Roman historians and Corneille's classical play Horace (1640). David presents this episode as an example of patriotism and stoicism. In this respect, he is close to philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Diderot, who advocated the painting of moral subjects. David also wanted to give his painting an orginal form. He sought to emulate the grand style of his 17th-century forebears Poussin and Le Brun. David returned to Rome, where he could draw inspiration from ancient art for this painting. He presented the finished canvas in his studio in Rome in 1785, then at the Paris Salon later that year, on both occasions to acclaim.
The manifesto of neoclassicism
The Oath of the Horatii is the first masterpiece of a new style breaking with the rococo style. The composition is broad and simple, with the life-size figures arranged in a frieze in the foreground, as on Roman sarcophagi and Greek vases. The figures are separated by large empty spaces in a stage-like area shown head-on. David emphasizes the room's geometry. The harsh, slanting light gives the figures their relief, and their contrasting characters are conveyed using different forms. He gives the men energetic bodies constructed out of straight lines and dresses them in vivid colors, while the women are all sinous curves and muted colors. The painting became the model throughout Europe for the new style of painting later known as neoclassicism.
Schnapper Antoine, Jacques-Louis David 1748-1825, catalogue d'exposition, Paris, musée du Louvre, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1989, pp.162-167.
Crow Thomas, L'Atelier de David émulation et révolution, Paris, Gallimard, 1997, pp. 47-53, 57-66 (traduit de l'anglais).
Jacques-Louis DAVID (Paris, 1748 - Brussels, 1825)
The Oath of the Horatii
H. 3.30 m; W. 4.25 m
Collection of Louis XVI
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Additional information about the work
Signed and dated bottom left: L. David/faciebat/Romae/anno MDCCLXXXIV