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.


  • 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.


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


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


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


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

Tehching Hsieh

Coursework, Creative Arts 1.1 Experience Creative Arts, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Notes, Project 1: The Shape of Time, Research & Reflection

Andrew Cummings reports on a talk by Tehching Hsieh.

One Year Performance

One Year Performance1980-1981 1980-1 Tehching Hsieh born 1950 Purchased with funds provided by the Asia Pacific Acquisitions Committee 2013 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T13875

Time Clock involved punching a time clock every hour for a year.

Physically demanding year-long immersive art.

Challenging the limit of possibility in terms of endurance

There is often a disconnect between performance and its representation in text, photography and art. How can you possibly write about punching a time clock every hour for a year to the same degree as experiencing it?

Also when you’re looking at someone’s life works over say 30 years, how do you summarise that? Or put together one exhibition? in other words, the task of translating time into space.

His works are about passing time. Time Clock and Outdoor Piece.

Amelia Groom writes – the 133 times that Hsieh failed to punch the clock out of a possible 8,760 are a vital component of the work as they highlight the conflict between corporeal time – the time of circadian rhythms, for example – and clock time. And though the time-lapsed film of the performance (a stop-action record made up of the 8,267 photograms taken when Hsieh did punch the clock) condenses the time of the 365-day performance into a six-minute film, it also registers an otherwise barely detectable corporeal time as the artist’s hair grows and his face bears greater signs of fatigue with the passing of the year.

Relentless productive work of capitalism. Every hour of the day, not just 9-5, represents how work seems to spill over into all hours of the day now.

Hsieh’s performances address pure time, the constantly renewing time of the present in which we all live, not any particular time or moment in his life.

This work has a lot in common with Ma(r)king Time.

Reading About Art

Books & reading, Coursework, Notes, Project 1: The Shape of Time, Research & Reflection

Why do we read when we study?

I am hugely passionate about reading about subjects. Reading gives you an insight into the mind of other people in a very intimate way. It is the way we share ideas, collaborate, challenge our own ideas and knowledge, develop our understanding and find new ways of working.

Suggested Reading List

CA4ECA Reading List


  1. Make notes when reading
  2. Don’t feel you have to read the whole book
  3. Read journal abstracts
  4. Keep an annotated Bibliography

SQR3 method

  • Survey (Skim) – Look through the chapter to get a feel of what it is about. Skim the content to check prior understanding and look for what is useful and interesting.
  • Question – Examine the text in detail. Ask questions about what you are reading. Highlight sections.
  • Read – Go back through your highlights and read again carefully.
  • Recall – Outline the main points in your own words to check understanding.
  • Review – Read the text again to make notes on anything missed. Is there further reading you need to do?

Troublemakers – Documentary

Coursework, Creative Arts 1.1 Experience Creative Arts, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Notes, Project 1: The Shape of Time, Research & Reflection

When researching Smithson and his Spiral Jetty, I stumbled across ‘Troublemakers’ the 2020 documentary about the land art movement.

From the start, the title intrigued me. I had an idea as to why they were labelled troublemakers from the reading I had done about the anti-establishment principles the movement was based on, but I wanted to find out more.


  • The Land Art movement was s group in the mid 1960s who used land as both the subject and the material
  • The works remain impressive even today
  • Everyone at that time was an explorer and there was a hunt for as bigger canvas
  • There was also a desire to end galleries and dealers and the influence they had, to give the voice back to the artist
  • There was a mixed reaction with some even labelling it Satanic and Violent
  • The idea was to be able to experience art
  • Links to the time – Vietnam War
  • Munich depression by Michael Heizer was one of the first
  • The era of space travel had an influence as we saw Earth in a new perspective
  • As did aerial views in general
  • Duchamp’s work was all aerial
  • The USA was the prime country for this to happen due to the space available out West
  • Was the movement anti-gallery? Or was it a need for space?
  • It alsmost created a new type of religion where people had to make pilgrimages out to see the works
  • However, artists still used galleries as meeting points, to make connections and exchange ideas
  • To people like Smithson, the idea was often more important than the doing
  • Smithson originally tried to find land in New Jersey but nowhere was suitable
  • Instead, the Earthworks show was born
  • Earthworks took its name from a sci-fi book, but the show was literally art using dirt. It gave the movement the massive publicity it needed
  • Walter De Maria filled the entire room with dirt
  • The art is linked to ecological concerns
  • Heizer’s double negative links to time as you see sirectly the layers that are in the cut outs through time
  • Also has themes of process and labour too


Books & reading, Coursework, Creative Arts 1.1 Experience Creative Arts, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Notes, Project 1: The Shape of Time, Research & Reflection

When I looked into the Spiral Jetty and reflected on why I was drawn to it, part of that intrigue is from it being a spiral itself. Spirals to me are fascinating on all sorts of levels. Give a young child a pencil and one of the first things he or she is likely to draw is a spiral. They are simple shapes, and perhaps one of the first we learn to draw, but they often have much deeper meanings. I am very interested in the ancient Celts, and a lot of their art and symbols are based on spirals, but also they appear across the ancient world. This to me, gives them an even more symbolic and mythological status. Artists through time have been drawn to the spiral too and I want to explore more of the meaning behind this and look at more examples of where they have been used.

What is a Spiral?

In simple mathematical terms, a spiral is a curve that moves further away from the centre point as it revolves. Spirals can be 2D or 3D and there are many types.

Archimedean Spiral: The distance between the spiral arms remains constant, it is like a curve of parallel lines. These are important in geometry as they are what Archimedes used in 225 BC to square the circle and Archimedes wrote a whole treatise on these called ‘On Spirals’ showing their significance to ancient knowledge.

Fermat’s Spiral: Fermat’s spirals are interesting. They are similar to Archimedean spirals, but the distance between the arms does not remain constant. Instead, it is the area between neighbouring arcs that is constant which effectively makes the spiral come closer together as it expands outwards.

In mature flower discs (phyllotaxis) such as in sunflowers and daisies, the shape of the spirals is that of a Fermat spiral. This is a concept explored by John Edmark who makes some incredible pieces of art using spirals.

The Logarithmic spiral: This is a spiral that often appears in nature. It differs from the archimedean spiral by the fact that the distances between the arms increase each time. These spirals are throughout nature. Hawks use them to approach their prey, the arms of spiral galaxies are often this shape, shells follow this pattern, hurricanes, nerves of the cornea also follow this shape.

A special case of the logarithmic spiral is the Fibonacci Spiral: Fibonacci spirals are also called the Golden spiral as it is one where the growth factor of the spiral is exactly equal to the golden ratio.

Triskeles are ancient motifs consisting of a triple spiral. These are found across neolithic artefacts and continue into the iron age and the beginning of the classical period.

Ancient Spirals

Spirals are ubiquitous throughout periods of history. They have been found as decorative motifs as far back as 10,000 BCE. We have more examples of them as Neolithic symbols throughout Europe.

One of the most famous examples is a prehistoric monument with a grand passage tomb built around 3200 BC at Newgrange in Ireland. We don’t know for sure what the site was used for, but it is believed to have huge religious significance and keeping time was important to the people as many of the tombs are aligned with solstices and equinoxes. Various archaeologists have speculated as to the meaning of the spiral designs, some think them to be purely decorative, whereas some hypothesise due to the placement of them, think they are much more symbolic. Many of the spirals are placed where they wouldn’t be visible which negates some of the theory that they are purely for decoration.

Newgrange, Ireland.

When you look into the Irish myths, there are other explanations for the meaning behind the symbols at Newgrange. Newgrange is described as a portal to the Otherworld, which is the ancient Irish underworld dwelling of the divine.

I find this an interesting link to the Spiral Jetty which also has roots in local mythology as a place of being a portal to another world.

In the Irish case, the link to time is even more apparent. One of the Irish Gods, the Dagda, has the ability to make time stand still by stopping the Sun. It has been suggested that the tale represents the Winter Solstice illumination of Newgrange. (Hensey, Robert. Re-discovering the winter solstice alignment at Newgrange, in The Oxford Handbook of Light in Archaeology. Oxford University Press, 2017. pp.11-13)

As well as in Ireland, spirals are found throughout the world. They are throughout pre-Columbian art in Latin and Central America, in rock carvings in Mexico, Peru as universal petroglyphs. Across Asia too where they are often interpreted as solar symbols.

Modern Spirals

The spiral has inspired artists for generations. Robert Smithson is one example but there are dozens of other examples too. In modern animation and anime, spirals are often present, one example is in the anime Gurren Lagann where the spiral represents a philosophy of life.

Spiral – Art Collective

When I was researching spirals in art, I came across it being used as a name of a New York-based African American collective that was formed in 1963 with the aim of addressing how African American artists should respond to America’s changing political and cultural landscape.

Romare Bearden Blue Shade 1972

What I find interesting about this, is that it is from a similar era to Smithson and many of the artists with the group were abstract expressionists, like Smithson started as. The Land Art movement in which Smithson was part of was motivated by the political climate and a desire to get away from the gallery centred art. The Spiral group of artists were also “ignored by many of the proponents of abstract expressionism, like the critic Clement Greenberg; who said their art was too autobiographical to be considered.”

Spirals: the whirled image in twentieth-century literature and art – Nico Israel

As part of my research into Spirals, I read this book.

I hadn’t considered the role of Spirals in literature as much as those in visual art. This book made me contemplate many more examples.

“Spirals have a curious centrality in some of the best-known and most significant twentieth-century literature and visual art. Consider the writings of W. B. Yeats, whose Vision was entranced by a system of widening and narrowing gyres; Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, whose poetry traced Dantesque helical journeys into and out of the modern urban inferno; and James Joyce, whose Ulysses navigated between the Scylla of Aristotelianism and the Charybdis of Platonism, ultimately casting both into the Wake of a thunderous Viconian “gyrotundo.” Or think, later in the century, of Samuel Beckett’s obsessive circuitry and abortive spiral journeys or of W. G. Sebald, for whom spiral rings signaled the vertiginous emanations of historical trauma.”

In the introduction to this book, we find the author Nico Israel was inspired to write the whole book after visiting the Spiral Jetty in Utah. When he returned to New York, he read more about Smithson’s project and found how inspired Smithson was by literature and not other pieces of visual art. Smithson had handwritten, under the title “A Metamorphoses of Spirals,” a series of quotations of short passages from some twenty-one texts.

I am going to write up this book in a different post to collate the notes together.

Research Task: Note Taking Skills

Coursework, Creative Arts 1.1 Experience Creative Arts, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Notes, Project 1: The Shape of Time, Research & Reflection

There are many ways to take notes, some more effective than others. One of the worst ways is to copy out word for word what has been said or what you are reading. I have seen students that I have taught spend hours doing this but it has little benefit. To learn from notes, the brain needs to be engaged on a deeper level than just copying.

The different techniques that I have come across are:

  • The outline method
  • Mind-mapping
  • Cornell method
  • Feynman method

The outline method can be useful. It is a way of summarising what has been said and organising it into a hierarchy where you can start linking ideas together. This forming of connections between ideas and the ability to summarise can lead to deeper learning. I often use this when I am jotting down ideas from a lecture or book or going through sections of a book I have highlighted.

Mind-mapping can be useful for forming connections between ideas and for brainstorming all that you know about a topic. I don’t tend to do this when I’m taking initial notes from another source. Instead, I will use it as a way of either brainstorming what I know about a topic before I start working on it. One example I have already done in this course was when I was thinking about my time reflection.

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Here I used it to build up a picture of what I wanted to talk about in the reflection and doing this before I started writing allowed me to think about those connections between the topics. The other time I will use mind-maps is when it comes to revising any topic as a test of what I can recall.

The Cornell Method is one I have heard about before but as I’m not too familiar with it, I did some more research into it. I found this great video from Cornell University to explain it.

The Cornell method is active learning, as it makes you question what you write which helps recall and memory. It makes you think about what is being said in a lecture or a book in terms of the meaning, rather than just the content. By summarising at the end, it makes you link this piece of learning to the big picture which we know from educational research is important for deep learning.

The Feynman method is a new one to me, and so again I did some initial research and found this video to explain it:

In essence that the Feynman technique does is make you question how deeply you understand something as you write notes on it. People often cover up their weak understanding by using technical jargon that they have copied or heard from someone else. The theory is that if you can’t explain something simply so that a child can understand it then you don’t truly understand it yourself. Although I haven’t used this technique in terms of it being called the Feynman method, it is something I used a lot whilst teaching. It is obviously true that you can’t teach something if you don’t understand it fully yourself. So I would test my understanding by the level to which I could explain it. This is what the Feynman method of notes does too.

You start with your chosen topic and study it. You then write notes as if you were explaining it to someone like a child who knows nothing about the topic. The idea is to use very simple language and diagrams. By doing this, you identify your own gaps in understanding which you can then do more reading into until you feel like you understand it well enough to explain it.

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(Image from https://www.safalniveshak.com/wall/)

Generally, I use a combination of both analogue and digital to take notes. My system tends to be that if I’m reading a book online or on kindle then I highlight digitally as I go through, I can then review these notes online and transfer them to notion which I use for digital notes. On notion I have set up templates for recording what I have read, artists I have looked at, course notes, my calendar and notebooks for random ideas. This way I can keep everything organised and linked together. There are times however when I’m reading a physical book or am brainstorming that I use paper. I seem to think better on paper, so will use this when I want to do deep learning.

For this course, I intend on keeping using my combination of analogue and digital. I have my notion pages set up, including a new Cornell notes template to try out. I will also make use of my learning log for project work, research, assignments and notes. When I am wanting to create or do something on paper, I have an A3 sketchbook which I have set aside just for this course.

I am aiming to try and use the Cornell system for making notes on any lectures or readings. When it comes to reviewing any work, I am going to try formally using the Feynman method to test my understanding.

Research for the Reflection on Time

Books & reading, Creative Arts 1.1 Experience Creative Arts, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Notes, Project 1: The Shape of Time, Research & Reflection, Sketchbook

Farthing, S. and Cork, R. (2018). Art: The whole story. London Thames & Hudson.

Gish, N.K. (1981). Time in the poetry of T.S. Eliot : a study in structure and theme. London: Macmillan.

Markosian, N. (2002). Time (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). [online] Stanford.edu. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time/.

Pressing, J. (1993). Relations between musical and scientific properties of time. Contemporary Music Review, 7(2), pp.105–122.

Rovelli, C. (2019). The Order Of Time. Penguin.

The Royal Institution (2018). The Physics and Philosophy of Time – with Carlo Rovelli. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6rWqJhDv7M.

Turner, F. and Pöppel, E. (1983). The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time. Poetry, [online] 142(5), pp.277–309. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20599567