David’s Oath of the Horatii

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David’s Oath of the Horatii

Painted in Rome in the style of Neo-Classicism, Jacques Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii is one of the better-known examples of art produced by this artist of eclectic styles. This painting was hailed as the manifesto of a new school based on the fervent study of the antique and a return to classical techniques in the late 18th century. In this painting, completed in 1785 as an oil on canvas, David (DA-VEED) successfully coalesces the nascent and confused ideology of the Neo-Classical movement in a dramatic portrayal of the Horatii brothers swearing their allegiance to the state as their father stands with swords held high for them to grasp. An analysis of the painting’s historical background, and an evaluation of the lines, colors, and subject matter, will illustrate why Oath of the Horatii represents the defining characteristics of the Neo-Classical period.

David enrolled in the Académie Royal in 1766, when he was eighteen. In 1769 he competed for the first time in the Prix de Rome, and lost. It was not until his fifth attempt in 1774 that he finally won with his Antiochus and Stratonice. The Academy maintained a branch in Rome and winners of the Prix were sent there on a fellowship to continue their studies. David returned to France in 1779 as a well-skilled—if not yet well-known—artist and was able to display some work in the Salon. Over the next five years he gained notice as a supreme draftsman in studio nudes and as a man able to project classicism similar to Poussin. His work also appealed to the didactic philosophers of the Age of Reason. (Harber, 2)

In 1784 David received a commission from the Comte d’Angiviller (the head supervisor of all build and construction under the King of France, Louis XVI) for a painting based on a Corneillian subject. Corneille’s play, Horace, was being performed in Paris at this time. Oath of the Horatii was started in Paris, but David felt he needed to be immersed in the ambiance and culture of Rome to complete it. The painting created a sensation when first exhibited in Rome of 1885, and was seen as an allegorical cry for a Revolution in France. Indeed, it was only four more years until the French Revolution was underway. The painting is now kept in the Louvre, Paris.

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