David’s Oath of the Horatii

Books & reading, history of art, Notes, Research & Reflection

Oath of the Horatii is a neoclassical oil painting by Jacques-Loui David (1784). It is currently on display in the Louvre, Paris. It is an example of the history genre which was considered to be at the top of the hierarchy of genres.

History Genre

History paintings are a form of narrative or ‘istoria’ that go back as far as the Renaissance. Acts of human virtue and intellect by moral heroes, including those in Christian stories (the dominant religion in Europe), were placed at the top of what would become the hierarchy of genres. History paintings were usually large-scale works depicting a subject based on classical history, literature or mythology from ancient Greece and Rome, a scene from the Bible, or real historical events.

History paintings were ideally suited to public spaces and large canvases. The scenes depicted were usually heroic or noble, the aim of these works being to elevate viewers’ morals. It was important that they provided the opportunity to depict the human figure – often nude or partially nude – since this subject was believed to require the greatest artistic skill. From the fifteenth until the nineteenth century, these enactments of human virtue were placed at the top of what would become the hierarchy of genres, and as a result, many artists aspired to be history painters.

The Renaissance values had a hierarchy on what they considered to be the “best” types of art. ‘History’ painting was considered to be the grande genre because, unlike the lower-ranked genres, it provided the artist with the opportunity to demonstrate (and the viewer to experience) moral force and imagination.

David’s Oath of the Horatii

Jacques-Louis David – The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, oil on canvas, Paris, Musee de Louvre

Materials and techniques

  • Oil painting on canvas.
  • Monumental scale – each figure is life-size.
  • Required great skill, especially to depict the human body with anatomical accuracy.
  • Disguised brushwork (difficult to tell from a reproduction).

David’s technique was time-consuming and challenging. He had a palette of only six pigments – black, white, vermilion (red), Prussian blue, yellow ochre and burnt umber/sienna. He applied his paint meticulously with small brushes, so no strokes are visible on the finished work. This highly finished technique is typical of the Neoclassical style, which in turn is highly appropriate for the ancient Roman subject. The figures look like painted sculptures.

Subject

  • A form of narrative painting known as history painting.
  • History painting is top of the hierarchy of subject matter known as genres.
  • Based on classical history from ancient pagan Rome.
  • Focus on noble male heroes and acts of virtue, both moral and intellectual.
  • Inspired by the writing of Livy (59 BCE–17 CE) which was designed to establish the Emperor Augustus’ validity after the fall of the republic.
  • Also inspired by French dramatist Corneille’s play Horace of 1640 which David saw performed.
  • The three Horatii brothers are preparing to do battle with three brothers from the Curiatii family in Alba to settle the dispute between their cities. The scene depicts them swearing on their swords, held aloft by their father, to defend the city of Rome to the death.
  • Scene of stoic bravery and masculinity.
  • The apparent subject matter is Roman heroism, the real content is a comment on the French state. 

Formal elements of style

  • David wanted a serious, academic style.
  • Geometric precise composition organised around groups of three – three arches, three figure groups, three brothers, three women, three swords.
  • Linear perspective (emphaised by chequerboard floor) to suggest an accurate illusion of three-dimensional space (a mathematical system). 
  • Strong outline to each figure. 
  • Single light source from left (which casts long strong shadows on the ground showing it is early morning).
  • Figures look solid and three-dimensional.
  • Figures show mass and volume and look sculptural. The muscularity of the men is heightened by the angle at which the light (which enters from upper left) rakes across the surface of their bodies, sharply delineating mass and volume.
  • Highlights and shadows – chiaroscuro.
  • Influenced by ancient classical sculpture – the plain classical Doric order of architecture (considered ‘masculine’).

The Human Form

The depiction of the human figure lies at the heart of the European art tradition. How the human figure is represented is a key to understanding any style.

Proportions

The classical ideal of head : body ratio, as used for the Horatii, is 1:7.

Gesture

The active heroic salute of the Horatii brothers; the limp arms of the women.

Pose

The Horatii stand strong and upright and take up space; the women are seated, in contained poses.

Expression

The stern, serious Horatii actively looking towards their father are based on the classical ideal of male beauty.

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