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Work Study for The Oath of the Horatii

Department of Prints and Drawings: 18th century

Tête d'homme barbu, et scène

Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN-Grand Palais - Photo L. Chastel

Prints and Drawings
18th century

Prat Louis-Antoine

Taken from one of the artist's sketchbooks, this is a black chalk study for his most famous painting, The Oath of the Horatii, which sealed the triumph of Neoclassicism at the Salon of 1785. The scene was inspired by Corneille's tragedy Horace, although it does not actually figure in the play.

A Roman sketchbook

This drawing is on page 21 of a sketchbook David used during his second stay in Italy, in 1784. He had gone to Rome to prepare his Oath of the Horatii. The pocket-sized notebook's 83 leaves include figures from life, urban views, copies from classical originals and the old masters, and studies for the Horatii canvas. The details sketched include swords and legs. This page associates a study for the head of old Horatius - another version of the folio 21 recto drawing - and a trial placing of the weeping women to the right. The staircase does not appear in the finished painting.

Manifesto for a new style of painting

The Oath of the Horatii is considered the manifesto of the Neoclassical movement, notably for its subject, the "exemplum virtutis," or illustration of courage and virtue: Horatius's three sons swear to their father that they will fight to the death against their rivals, the Curatii. Camilla, visible on the right, is the fiancée of one of the latter. Before opting for the Oath as his subject, David had considered other episodes from the story of the Horatii, in particular a much more violent one: sole survivor of the bloody combat, one of the Horatii returns to Rome and kills his sister, guilty in his eyes of mourning the death of her fiancé.

Numerous studies

In addition to the studies in the Louvre notebook, David made many others of the Horatii. Preceding those for the Oath, the sketches of the murder of Camilla are much more stormy and Baroque, but a drawing of the Oath scene dating from 1782, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille, offers a frieze resembling an ancient bas-relief: here the contrast between the virile determination of the three sons and the grief of their mother, their sister, and the wife of one of them, illustrates perfectly the tension running through the composition.


P. Rosenberg, L.-A. Prat, Jacques Louis David 1748-1825: Catalogue raisonné of the drawings, 2002, II, plate 1304

Technical description

  • Jacques-Louis David (Paris, 1748-Brussels, 1825)

    Study for The Oath of the Horatii


  • Black chalk on paper

    H. 0.135 m; W. 0.188 m

  • Acquired by Mrs. Charles Normand, 1918

    RF 4506

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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