The Influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau Essay

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Eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau influenced many French revolutionaries with his ideas. In the time of the Enlightenment, people believed that humankind could progress and improve through the use of reason and science. One of them was French artist Jacques-Louis David, who was official artist to the French revolution (p158, Blk 3). Just as Rousseau had used his publications to reflect on his ideas, David had used art as a media to reflect the ideas and values of the society in the eighteenth century. In this essay, we will be examining the influence of Rousseau’s views on the relationship between the state and the individual in David’s painting “The Oath of the Horatii”.

Rousseau’s publication, The Social Contract, states that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. His belief is that everyone is equal and nobody has authority over anyone else. This was the source of the revolutionaries’ ideas (p96 Blk 3). In order to be free while ‘living in society’, Rousseau’s solution is that the individual adopts the general will. This view is also reflected in David’s painting “The Oath of the Horatii”.

David’s Neoclassical style was austere and reflected on reason and the clear moral principles of Rousseau’s ideas. “The Oath of the Horatii” depicts the presenting of arms from Horatius to his sons. This demonstrates an act of patriotism as one of the brothers and the sister was related by marriage to the enemy Curiatii. He draws on the classical story by the ancient historian Livy, to reflect patriotism and selflessness. The story would have been familiar to the educated contemporaries of David, and this kind of knowledge was important to the Enlightenment (p166, Blk 3). The particular point where the brothers choose between the country and their personal desires deliberately sets people thinking about the message of patriotism. It is a representation of a kind of patriotic heroism or duty in which the best interests of society are put before those of the individual (p177, Blk 3). The brothers in choosing to go into battle, has chosen political duty over family allegiance. This reflects Rousseau’s views that the individual puts aside their particular wills and adopts the general will in the interest of the state.

The act of selflessness reflects Rousseau’s views of the general will. According to Rousseau, the general will is that wh...

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...look on the women. This reflects Rousseau’s view that women should be passive and weak, while men should be active and strong (p96, Blk 3).

David’s use of clear bold lines and the austere background seems to reflect simplicity. There is a minimum of distraction in the painting. David even removed the bases on the columns for greater simplicity (TV12). This reflects frugality in an age where luxury is being frowned upon (p.174, Blk 3). Rousseau also believes that it is wrong when people are driven by their own desires.

From examining The Oath of the Horatii, it is clear that an art piece can be shaped by the ideas and values of the society and Rousseau’s views had a significant influence in the painting. Rousseau expressed his views in his publications and David had used art as a vehicle for expressing his views in visual form.

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Open University. Block 3: History, Classicism and Revolution. Milton Keynes: OU Press 1997

An Introduction to the Humanities. Resource Book 2. Milton Keynes: OU Press, 1997

An Introduction to the Humanities. Illustration Book

TV12 – Art: A Question of Style The Open University

CD5 – AC2334 Part 2 The Open University

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