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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“Oath of the Horatii” by Jacques-Louis David

"Oath of the Horatii" by Jacques-Louis David

“Oath of the Horatii” by Jacques-Louis David

“Oath of the Horatii” by Jacques-Louis David depicts a scene from a Roman legend about a seventh-century BC dispute between two warring cities, Rome and Alba Longa. It is one of the best-known history paintings in the Neoclassical style. Its theme stresses the importance of patriotism and self-sacrifice for one’s country and family. The painting depicts the Roman Horatius family, from which three brothers had been chosen for a ritual duel. The duel was against three brothers of the Curiatii, a family from Alba Longa, to settle the disputes between the two cities.

The three brothers, all of whom agreed to sacrifice their lives for the good of Rome, are shown saluting their father who holds their swords out for them. In the bottom right corner, are the women of the family who are also sacrificing for the state. One of the women Camilla, a sister to the Horatii brothers, is betrothed to one of the Curiatii fighters. Another woman is a sister of the Curiatii, married to one of the Horatii. They weep in the understanding that, whichever side wins, they will lose someone they love.

As the revolution in France loomed, paintings urging loyalty to the state were popular and “The Oath of the Horatii” became one of the defining images of the time.

The Horatii and Curiatii

At a joint conference between the two disputing cities, it was proposed that the dispute be resolved by some means other than mass bloodshed. Both towns were concerned that the nearby Etruscans would fall upon the two Latin states if they were weakened by mutual war and unable to defend themselves. It was agreed that a set of triplets from each side, three brothers Horatii and three Curiatii, would do battle for victory. The duel would thus determine which city would be the dominant member, without mass-slaughter.

The leaders of each city made vows that the outcome of the fight would bind both states. When the combat commenced, two of the Roman brothers were the first to fall. The one surviving Roman brother then allowed the three Curiatii fighters to chase him. This strategy caused them to separate from each other, and then, he, in turn, killed each of the Curiatii brothers. Thus the last Horatius brother won victory for Rome, and the Albans became a vassal state of Rome.

Not long afterwards, war brock out between Rome and two other Etruscan cities. The Albans were ordered to march to battle with the Romans. However, when the action commenced, the Alba Longa commander led his troops away from the battle, leaving the Romans to fight the Etruscans alone.

Nevertheless, Rome was victorious against the Etruscans. After their victory against the Etruscans, the Roman soldiers were ordered to demolish the 400-year-old city of Alba Longa. They only left the temples standing, and the entire population of Alba Longa was transported to Rome, thereby doubling the number of Roman citizens.

This painting became an immediate success with critics and the public, which increased David’s fame, allowing him to take on his own students.

Jacques-Louis David

Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825) was a French painter in the Neoclassical style, considered to be the preeminent painter of the era. In the 1780s his history painting marked a change in taste away from Rococo frivolity toward a classical austerity and feeling, harmonising with the moral climate of the final years of the Royal Régime.

David became an active supporter of the French Revolution and friend of Maximilien Robespierre and was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. Imprisoned after Robespierre’s fall from power, he aligned himself with yet another political regime upon his release, that of Napoleon. At this time, David developed his Empire style.

After Napoleon’s fall from Imperial power and the Bourbon revival, David exiled himself to Brussels, then in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, where he remained until his death. David had a large number of pupils, making him the most substantial influence in French art of the early 19th century, primarily academic Salon painting.

Oath of the Horatii

  • Title:                      Oath of the Horatii
  • French:                  Le Serment des Horaces
  • Artist:                    Jacques-Louis David
  • Year:                      1784
  • Medium:                Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:          130×196 cm
  • Type:                      History Painting
  • Museum:               Louvre, Paris

Jacques-Louis David

A Tour of the Louvre’s Paintings

Reflections

  • “The artist must be a philosopher.” – Jacques-Louis David

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“The artist must be a philosopher.”
– Jacques-Louis David

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Photo Credit: 1) Jacques-Louis David [Public domain]

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