• The Oath of the Horatii

The Oath of the Horatii

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The Oath of the Horatii
Artist: Jacques Louis David
Oil painting on canvas; Size: 330x425cm; Louvre, Paris.

Oath of the Horatii (French: Le Serment des Horaces) is an Oil painting by French artist Jacques Louis David painted in 1784. The art work represents the three Horatii brothers swearing to defend their country in the celebrated duel with the Curiatii. The solemn pledge is made before their father, who is holding in one hand the three swords that the brothers will use in the fight; on the right we see a group of weeping women. The choice of a subject linked to republican Rome is indicative of the cultural climate of those years, on the eve of the French Revolution. Even more significant, as Jean Starobinski pointed out in a famous essay, is the theme of the swearing of an oath, the act by which several different wills freely commit themselves to a higher goal: in revolutionary ideology, which is already lurking in this work, it is a fundamental act of civil engagement. A celebrated picture by the great Swiss artist Fiissli, painted just a few years earlier, represents the Oath of the Confederates and reflects the same cultural and political mood.
David has created a composition in which the greatest emphasis is given to the meaning of the gestures, a work that we could define as eloquent, based on a rhetoric of the image that spurns any embellishment and pomposity in favor of a clear and straightforward language. The center of the composition is the father's hand grasping the weapons, toward which the brothers' extend their arms as they make their vow. Note the highly effective device of the correspondence between the hands of the Horatii, two of them close together and one set slightly apart, and the tips of the swords, underlining the identification of the young men with the commitment to fight which binds them. The entire painting is skillfully constructed with geometrical rigor around a pattern of diagonals and triangles (the legs of the brothers and their father, the pike on the left, the arms and the swords, the bodies of the women) that contrasts with the imposing rhythm of the colonnade in the background intensifying the sense of action. For these formal characteristics and for the effort made to be faithful, in the costumes and architecture, to classical models, deliberately chosen from those of the republican era, the painting can be regarded as one of the works that marked the advent of neoclassicism in France and Europe.

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