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May. 8, 2021 | Saturday
Editorials and Opinions
Eye for Art: Jean Jacques David, 'Oath of the Horatii'
Jean Jacques David, ‘Oath of the Horatii,’ 1784, Oil on canvas, Musee du Louvre, Paris

Penny-Lynn Cookson
Special to The Lake Report

In the battle against COVID-19, the latest lockdown decree from the provincial government advises us to continue avoiding close contact with family, friends or groups, such measures being a necessary sacrifice in the interest of the common good. 

In the tumultuous days before the French Revolution of 1789, Jean Jacques David, the pre-eminent Neoclassical artist of the 18th and 19th centuries, created masterpieces of historical art that related to contemporary events.  His "Oath of the Horatii," one of the great paintings of art history, exemplifies the noble, moral value of selflessness and unflinching patriotic duty to the state over family and personal desires.

Although "Oath of the Horatii" was a commission intended to extol the virtues of reverence and loyalty to King Louis XVI, the fast-changing political situation in France resulted in a work far different from expected, one that would have strong republican implications and revolutionary appeal. 

David was to ride the wave from being an artist to the king, to being a major player in the Paris Commune, the Terror, and the French Revolution.  Friend of Robespierre, a member of the Jacobin Club and the National Assembly, David cast his vote for the execution of Louis XVI, for which his royalist wife divorced him. 

He managed to keep his head from the guillotine in spite of being imprisoned for treason, remarried his former wife and rose to become Napoleon’s "First Painter of the Emperor," developing the rich colours and dynamism of the Empire style. His pupils included leading painters such as Antoine Jean Gros and Ingres.  fter Napoleon’s fall and the restoration of the monarchy under the Bourbons, David retreated to Brussels, where he tragically died after being struck by a carriage.

David had come from a privileged family, studied at the Royal Academy and after three failed attempts succeeded in winning the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1774, which brought acclaim and five years study in Rome where he would focus on antiquity and the Renaissance and be influenced by Raphael, Poussin and Caravaggio. 

On receiving the commission for "Oath of the Horatii" he declared, "Only in Rome can I paint Romans" and his subject would be a 7th-century BC Roman legend, recounted by the historian Livy, when Rome was in a territorial dispute with its neighbour Alba Longa. To avoid war, the civic authorities of both states decided that three sons from each side would engage in combat to settle the matter.

In David’s austere classical painting, three sons of the noble Roman Horatii family will fight three Curatii sons of Alba Longa. The Horatiis stand tall, one behind the other, united in fraternity and heroic sacrifice, strong legs firmly planted, exuding testosterone, muscled arms raised to the hand of their father who holds their swords aloft while they repeat the oath of allegiance to Rome vowing “to conquer or die.”

The weeping women to the right know the outcome will bring death to their loved ones. One young woman in white, is a Horatii sister betrothed to a Curatii son. The other robed woman is the Curatii wife of one of the Horatii sons. In the background, the mother of the Horatiis shields two small children with her robe. The young child turns away but the boy remains observant. 

The composition is powerfully minimalist, the surface polished, the brushstrokes smooth. David keeps the palette subtle except for the red garments of the father and the sole survivor of the battle to come, a Horatii. He will return home to the anguish of his sister who condemns Rome for her loss, for which he will slay her. 

David chose not to show this. He does, however, illustrate historic gender differences and the symbolic use of the number three in the three swords and the three men united in a position of classical relief sculpture before solid Doric columns. 

Three curved arches relate to the rounded, soft figures of the three women, their slumping bodies draped in sorrow. The father’s back is to the women.  One will die for her outspokenness. The state is supreme.

David advocated that “to achieve their goal, masterpieces must charm but also penetrate the soul and make a deep impression on the mind that is similar to reality.”  He achieves his goal in this masterpiece with the moral message that when relevant circumstances demand action, heroic sacrifice for the good of all is a virtuous duty to be enacted and valued.

Penny-Lynn Cookson is an art historian who taught at the University of Toronto for 10 years. She also was head of extension services at the Art Gallery of Ontario. See her lecture series "Art and Revolution, From Cave Art to the Future" Thursdays on Zoom until April 29 at RiverBrink Art Museum in Queenston.