“Tout morceau de sculpture ou de peinture doit être l'expression d'une grande maxime, une leçon pour le spectateur; sans quoi il est muet.” —Diderot1
Jacques-Louis David's The Oath of the Horatii, completed in 1784, has been described as that work which, “more than any other, dealt the final death blow to the eighteenth century tradition.”2 That 18th century tradition was the Rococo. Ethereal in quality, the Rococo is well illustrated by a work such as Antoine Watteau's Reunion en Plein Aire, c.1719. When we look at The Oath, we see none of the delicacy of Watteau's stroke, treatment of light-hearted modern pleasure, or dominance of nature. Instead we see over 50 years of development which has resulted in an antique and historic theme, austerely depicting the prominence of human presence, striving for that “expression” for which Diderot called. The Oath is neoclassical, the then-developing approach to art which bases itself in the acceptance of and pursuit to understand the ancient. But The Oath is not merely an expression of a new style. The Oath of the Horatii represents David's individuality, an individuality that would lead him to contradict the French Académie in order to pursue his own understanding of the art of painting, an understanding that was based on past and modern ideologies and which represented a synthesis that would be soon adopted by supporters of the French Revolution.
We should first compare more closely The Oath to the Reunion in order to understand better the technical and thematic differences that makes The Oath revolutionary. Watteau places humans on a scale subordinate to nature—his figures are small in comparison to the vastness of the forest in which they picnic. The stone nymph is apparently physically active, but she serves only as a remnant of a long-gone past, not advancing any ancient tradition to the actual activity. Watteau's brush strokes are wisp-like and dainty, the subtlety of colors and forms present a softness to the figures and impart a dream-like sense to the entire vision. Humanity acquiesces to the forces around it and men and women share a common space. In contrast, David's figures dominate the canvas. Nature is not present; instead architecture. And the story brings antiquity to life. With strong light breathing strong edges, the figures are solid, active, and full of presence. There is an immediacy to the event we are witnessing and a determination in its participants, these characteristics enhanced by an arrangement that is frieze-like and planar. The elements of the composition are disassociated—a technique long taught but largely ignored by the Rococo stylists—in order to create monumental figures and emotionally powerful groupings.3
In truth there is nothing technical in David's work which has not already been achieved by the masters of the 17th century such as Michelangelo da Caravaggio and Nicolas Poussin.4 In particular, we can look at Caravaggio's Doubting Thomas to illustrate the use of strong lighting, juxtaposition of figures, and scrupulous attention to the human form as a method for creating emotional and psychological intensity. In a similar manner we can look at Poussin's Arcadian Shepherds as an example of the allusion to classical figures and the power of painting as allegory. Both painters place the human figure as central and dominating the canvas, and both present a personalized view of an historical or mythological subject—much as David does. What is remarkable is that French paintings which preceded The Oath, whether by David or other artists, lacked the convincing synthesis of the above elements.
In creating such a synthesis, David at once expressed his own drive and creativity and eschewed the constraints of the Académie. Neither in Corneille's play Horace, (nor its ancient source of Livy, nor the contemporary ballet version by Jean-George Noverre) which is said to be the inspiration for the painting, is there any mention of an oath.5 That all-important focus of the subject is David's creation. The size of the painting (10 x 13 ft) is beyond the standard form (10 x 10 ft), an innovation which he enacted without permission to save his composition's “energy.”6 For this and other elements of composition he was sharply critiqued by some: “M. d'Angivilliers, qui lui reprocha d'avoir fait plus grand que les dimensions prescrites. M. Pierre s'indigna de voir 'trois figures sur la même ligne' “ and “Le peintre . . . a rompu l'unité pittoresque.”7 But these breaks in tradition had the desired effect of illuminating the rediscovery of “a dramatic means to express feeling and idea through the almost exclusive means of an intense focus on the human figure.”8 And even this focus was achieved through David's particular application of classical studies. In the tradition of da Vinci and Caravaggio, David undertook a significant study of anatomy. His drawings reveal the ability to render sub-dermal forms with the understanding of the Italians past, but more importantly they reveal the innovation of rendering the tension of movement while still harnessing an almost sculptural quality, resulting in figures that appear distinct, noble and true to life.9 David's sense of contour, integral to such rendering, would be one of the defining elements that set him apart from the other painters of his time.10 His focus on the human figure as well-defined and sculptural, yet alive and active, allows his painting to achieve what is perhaps the most neoclassical characteristic of his work: the moral and ethical associations that it created based on its allusion to antiquity.11 And it is therein that we find The Oath of the Horatii creating its greatest social significance, as it was adopted by the 1790s as a symbol of the French Revolution.
But whether David had political motives when painting The Oath is a subject of debate.12 It has been suggested that his use of the baseless Tuscan column, although anachronistic,13 was a political move unto itself, that device being well-understood as a symbol of Republican Rome and its perceived virtues.14 We have seen that his defiance, and apparent contempt, of the Académie was well-established. During the Revolution he led the attack on that office, which was abolished in 1793, and he was a founder of the Institut in 1795. Whether his strike was a matter of personal vendetta over past conflicts, or a deliberate attack on an office supported by the monarchy, is unsure. But his votes for the death of the king, his subsequent support of Bonaparte and Robespierre, and certain of his paintings made after the revolution, make clear his political leanings after that event.15
When we examine David's life and convictions before the Revolution we see that The Oath represents the culmination of a contemporary understanding after which he had long sought. The significance of an oath as the subject of painting was not new to him or others, but it reached its most perfected expression in this namesake.16 He had arrived at the ability to express moral and social character through painted physical forms that conjured an ideal of humanity.17 And he had done so by incorporating modern ideologies. The ideal human archetypes proffered by Buffon, offering a strength of physique critically lacking in the French nobility, find a home in The Oath. The intensity of the gaze which the brothers and father project towards the swords speak to the mental energies claimed by Mesmer, whose ideas would find greater voice in later paintings.18
Perhaps David's greatest intent in The Oath of the Horatii was to make a statement about individuality and human strength. He expresses his understanding of his study of painting in a manner that flies in the face of convention, but that is true to the ideals which he feels driven to embody. As a result, his characters speak boldly about choice and perseverance. Is it any wonder then that those who sought similar characteristics in the nation and in politics should view this painting as a hallmark of their ideology? The Revolution, then, found the art of David, because David had given to art a revolution.
French Painting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution. The Detroit Institute of the Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971.
Honour, Hugh. Neo-classicism. Penguin Books, 1968.
Johnson, Dorothy. Jacques-Louis David, Art in Metamorphosis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Kalnein, Wend von. Architecture in France in the Eighteenth Century. Yale University Press, 1995.
Lee, Simon. David. London: Phaedon Press Limited, 1999.
Maurois, D'Andre. J.-L. David. France: Éditions de Dimanche, 1948.
Nanteuil, Luc de. David. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990: 62.
Rosenblum, Robert. Transformations in Late Eighteenth Century Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.
Wakefield, David. French Eighteenth-Century Painting. New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, LTD., 1984.
Jacques Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784
Antoine Watteau, Reunion en Plein Aire, 1719
Nicolas Poussin, The Arcadian Shepherds, 1638-9
Michelangelo da Caravaggio, Doubting Thomas, 1602-3
1Maurois, D'Andre. J.-L. David. France: (Éditions de Dimanche, 1948), #9.
2Wakefield, David. French Eighteenth-Century Painting. (New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, LTD., 1984), 116
3Honour, Hugh. Neo-classicism. (Penguin Books, 1968), 36-7
4Lee, Simon. David. (London: Phaedon Press Limited, 1999), 88
5Wakefield, David. French Eighteenth-Century Painting. (New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, LTD., 1984), 116
6Lee, Simon. David. (London: Phaedon Press Limited, 1999), 92
7Maurois, D'Andre. J.-L. David. France: (Éditions de Dimanche, 1948), #9.
8Johnson, Dorothy. Jacques-Louis David, Art in Metamorphosis. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 58
9Johnson, Dorothy. Jacques-Louis David, Art in Metamorphosis. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 63
10Johnson, Dorothy. Jacques-Louis David, Art in Metamorphosis. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 38-40
11Lee, Simon. David. (London: Phaedon Press Limited, 1999), 88
12Honour, Hugh. Neo-classicism. (Penguin Books, 1968), 70-2
13Rosenblum, Robert. Transformations in Late Eighteenth Century Art. (Princeton University Press, 1969), 124
14Kalnein, Wend von. Architecture in France in the Eighteenth Century. (Yale University Press, 1995), 215
15French Painting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution. (The Detroit Institute of the Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971), 358-9
16Rosenblum, Robert. Transformations in Late Eighteenth Century Art. (Princeton University Press, 1969), 66-9
17Johnson, Dorothy. Jacques-Louis David, Art in Metamorphosis. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 62
18Johnson, Dorothy. Jacques-Louis David, Art in Metamorphosis. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 60-5