Jacques-Louis David: Oath of the Horath

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was one of the key artistic figures of the Neoclassical style. He is a personal favorite of mine. I love the order, balance, and symmetry in his art and I think that it exemplifies Classical Greek and Roman art. To me, his paintings put a “modern” (“modern” in an eighteenth century to nineteenth century sense of the word, of course!) twist to the art of the ancient Classical time period.

David was the painter-ideologist of the French Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ironically, he was a student of Boucher, a key leader of the Rococo Style. After a visit to Rome as a young man, David came to favor Classical Greek and Roman art, using Classical and Renaissance art works as models and guides for his own. He rebelled against Rococo art, claiming it embodied an “artificial taste” and praised the perfect and orderly forms of Classical art.

David’s Oath of the Horath is an exemplary Neoclassical painting.

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horath, 1784

Like Kauffman, David believed that his paintings should have a moral value. In Oath of the Horath, David uses his painting to depict a scene in a story from pre-Republican Rome. According to the story, the warring cities of Rome and Alba each chose three representatives to battle one another, Rome had chosen the three Horatii brothers.

In David’s painting, he depicts the scene in which the three Horatii brothers swear on their swords, held high by their father, to fight for Rome, life or death. The men seem to be oblivious to the worries and sorrows of their wives, mothers, and sisters, who sit on the right.

David’s painting is truly Roman, in every sense. Not only does it depict the Roman and Enlightenment virtues of patriotism and sacrifice, but it is also Roman in composition. The composition is clear and forceful. The men form a rigid and angular composition, greatly contrasting the soft and fluid composition formed by the women. The figures’ attire is completely Roman as well. Even the background, with the sturdy and simple columns shows the influence of Roman society.

This is one of my favorite paintings. Neoclassism is one of my favorite styles of art and David is one of my favorite painters. I love the “tribute” to Roman society in this paintings and its added modern twist. The figures are depicted so realistically from head to toe, which is particularly evident in the three brothers’ arms and legs. One aspect I don’t like, though, is the depiction of women as weak, worrisome, and depending on their men, even though I understand that this was likely the way that society portrayed women at the time. Aside from that though, I think that Oath of the Horath is a great painting overall.

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