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 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
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.
When I compare these to the first session I attended, I am happier with them. They feel freer and more in proportion than my first attempt. I feel like I have captured the atmosphere of the pose well, with the model in some tricky poses. I want to develop my work on faces, feet, hands and overall tone control.
This is something that I have been meaning to try for a while as it reminded me of Ma(r)king time and the punching hole technique.
I made my own canvas by taking apart a ready-made painting canvas and pinning fabric across it. Then used a needle to punch holes to add the different coloured wools. I tried to play with texture by having some flat loops and some rounder longer loops.
The colours were inspired by the Ukraine flag due to the news from there currently as I see flowers as a symbol for hope.
I can definitely see myself using this technique again, but with more textures and it would be interesting to use materials other than wool, perhaps paint on the fabric first and then add different textures using this.
This was my first attempt at drawing a life model in person, it is not something I have experienced before and it taught me a great deal.
Each pose was only held for 10-minutes and so I had to adapt to quickly observing and drawing what I saw rather than taking the time to make detailed observations. It allowed me to focus on quickly observing shapes, tone and positions without being too concerned about generating a refined drawing at the end.
A 12-Year, Award-Winning, Global, Collaborative Embroidery Project by Kirstie Macleod
The idea of uniting people and women from all over the world.
Forst stitches were in 2009, since then it has travelled around the world.
OCASA event had the artist Kirstie Macleod talk about her work which I had the pleasure of attending recently.
British textile artist Kirstie Macleod began the Red Dress Project in 2009. Initially, exhibiting the dress as an installation, wearing it as she sat in a clear cube working on the embroidery. During the next 12 years the dress took on a life of its own, becoming a platform for women, particularly refugees, the impoverished and those living in war torn countries, to express their feelings and tell their stories. Embroiderers from across the world used stitches that reflected both their culture and country, making the dress an international and multi-cultural piece of textile art.
Belatedly I am starting The January Challenge and using it as a chance to get drawing digitally again.
The first prompt was to complete a one-line self-portrait. Working continually in one line is challenging digitally as you want to keep clicking and changing settings. It made me focus on observing and not worrying too much about the final product. To enjoy the process.
I am pleased with the movement and fluidity, I would like to have gone back over some lines to create even more texture in places such as my hair and move my left eyebrow which is way too high!
You Only Had One Line
Created digitally using Adobe Photoshop standard hard pencil. Made using a mouse rather than a stylus for the extra challenge!
I came across this saying and it made me think about the exercise on apples.
It is important to live as if we are always on the eve of a great discovery and prepare to welcome it as completely, intimately and ardently as we can.
The idea of discovery made me think of apples and knowledge but in a childlike way where everything is a chance to learn. We sometimes lose that as adults but this reminds me to get back into the playful mode.
I experimented with the colour, inspired by some of the scenes in Amelie where a green filter is applied to make the red of the apple stand out more.
The font is meant to look Biblical, emphasised with the capitalising of “Eve” to remind us of one of the symbols of knowledge in the Book of Genesis.
This was a quick mock-up just using Canva, but it is an idea I may develop further. At the moment it feels too “social media” as if it is something that people share for inspiration without truly reflecting on it.
I picked up Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery (Perry, 2014) recently from my local library and feel it is an excellent example of many of the points covered in Gilda Williams’ book How to Write About Contemporary Art.
Grayson Perry writes in an extremely engaging way about the roles of galleries and contemporary art and the book is also filled with some of his cartoon drawings which bring the content alive. It is a fairly short book of 134 pages but there are snippets of things to reflect on.
You can’t expect to understand conteporary art without effort. This reinforces the point in How to Write About Contemporay Art (Williams, 2014) that it is a practise that should ideally be daily. The deeper you get involved, the more enjoyment there is.
What we “like” is thought to be subjective but there is a lot of manipulation by critics, dealers and gallery owners. The art we get to ee is determined from above and curated for us. It pays to have an open mind and start to reflect on what we actually like rather than what we think we should like.
The philosophy of what art actually is fascinates me and this book dicusses a lot. Perry discuses what he calls his “boundaries” of what art is. This is an idea I want to come back to in relation to time.
Being an artist should not be about “being an artist”, all great artists do it because they want to make art. There is a balance between making what is going to please people and potentially make you an income but this childlike joy of just making art should never be lost.
Perry, G. (2014). Playing to the Gallery : Exploring the modern relationship between society and art. London, Uk: Penguin Books Australia.
Williams, G. (2014). How to write about contemporary art. Thames & Hudson.
Amélie is a 2001 French romantic comedy by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. There is so much you can say about this movie but I want to focus here on its use of colour throughout the film as I think it is one of the most brilliant examples.
The film follows the story of Amélie who is brought up in an eccentric household and eccentric characters seem to be ever-present in her life. We are brought into her imagination and the way she sees the world throughout the film.
The use of colour in the film helps us feel this imagination and inner world. The film as a whole is very saturated with warm filters, there is a lot of deep red, gold, yellows and earthy greens which help create this almost surreal feel. Paris itself is brought to life and personified using the yellow hues and it acts as a character in the film rather than a location.
Green and red are used commonly in the film. Green symbolises nature, hope and is a comforting colour to many people and so it is used to harmonise the overall look in the film. Red on the other hand brings warmth, passion and Amélie is often seen wearing red or carrying red accessories to reflect her life and mood.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is a 1939 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, about a male actor specialising in playing female roles in late 19th century Japan. It was a movie I discovered by accident one day but has become one of my favourites. It manages to capture humanity and the ideas of family, class, the value of life in a simple storyline with amazing cinematography.
The shots Mizoguchi uses to draw us into the story are on a very human level. There are a lot of wide-angle shots that place the actors in very real sets as if we are watching real life from a distance. There is a lot of care taken to create realistic mise-en-scene to convince us we are watching a real story. The detail in the shots is amazing, and as so much of it is shot from a distance the set is almost more important than the acting at times, but this is how we often see the real world, we watch stories unfold from a distance.
There are very few close-ups or changes of angles within a scene and this helps us stay captivated by what we are seeing unfold. Almost like watching actors on a stage rather than a film.
Alongside the amazing cinema work, the storyline and script are believable and give us an insight into the class system in Imperial Japan. The characters develop and we feel their emotions and struggles with them.