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David, Oath of the Horatii

Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii showcases Neoclassicism, a stark contrast to the Rococo style. The painting, exhibited in 1785, depicts the Horatii brothers taking an oath to fight for Rome. David's work highlights Enlightenment ideas, with strong, angular male figures and passive, curvilinear women. The painting later became an icon for the French Revolution. Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 1784 (Musée du Louvre). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(mellow piano music) - [Dr. Steven Zucker] We're standing in one of the largest galleries in the Louvre in Paris. It's filled with enormous paintings. We're looking at Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii. This was a painting that was made in 1984 and exhibited in 1785 and this painting stole the show. It was absolutely new, nobody had every seen anything like it. - [Dr. Beth Harris] The prevailing style in France was the Rococo. We could think about artists like Boucher or Fragonard, a style that applied to the aristocracy. - [Steven] And even in the kind of history painting that was made for the king, the style had become formulaic, it had become tired but David's Oath of the Horatii establishes a new style that we call Neoclassicism. - [Beth] Critics like Diderot are calling for an art that depicts virtuous behavior, very different from the prevailing Rococo style and this painting answers that call. - [Steven] This is the tale end of the period in France that we call the Enlightenment with philosophers like Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire who posset the idea that the rational should supersede tradition and the spiritual. - [Beth] The church was incredibly powerful, the monarchy in France was incredibly powerful and the philosophers of the Enlightenment are asking questions about the validity of these very established institutions. - [Steven] And remember it will only be a few years before the French Revolution begins. - [Beth] Right, this is exhibited in 1785, the revolution is 1789. - [Steven] And the American Revolution has already taken place, based in large part on the ideas of French Enlightenment philosophers. - [Beth] We have a story from early Ancient Roman history. - [Steven] The early Roman state is at war with the neighboring city of Alba. - [Beth] But instead of the armies of each side going to war, they decide to sent three brothers from each side to battle it out. Whoever survives is the side that's victorious. - [Steven] The Romans chose the Horatii, and the city of Alba chooses the Curatii. - [Beth] But things get very complicated because there are intermarriages between these two families. So no matter who wins. - [Steven] Both sides will lose. - [Beth] Exactly. - [Steven] What we see is the father of the Horatii holding swords aloft as the sons take an oath to battle to the death. - [Beth] For Rome. - [Steven] On the right we see three women and two children. There's some disagreement as to who the woman in blue is in the back. - [Beth] We see two young women in the foreground. One of them is a Curatii sister and she's married to one of the Horatii brothers. - [Steven] The other is a Horatii by birth but will marry one of the Curatii. - [Beth] Families will be torn apart by this battle. - [Steven] No matter what happens. - [Beth] By making the women appear so curvilinear, so passive, they don't even have their eyes open, David is suggesting an idea that was very prevalent in the philosophy of Rousseau, for example, that women could not be true citizens of the state, they were unable to think about civic responsibility. Women could only think about the personal and the familial. - [Steven] And look at how David has depicted that contrast. If the women are curvilinear, if their bodies are limp, the male figures are rigid, they are upright, they are tall, they are strong. - [Beth] They are angular in the forms of their bodies. They raise their arms together. There's a sense of purpose that is completely absent from the women who appear to be just victims of circumstance here. - [Steven] The young men are working in unison. Their arms salute in unison. There is clearly a reverence for the idea of strength in a kind of brotherhood, in a kind of collective. - [Beth] David represents all of this in a classical, classicizing style, looking back to Ancient Greece and Rome. There is an interest in the anatomy of the body, of carefully depicting the musculature, the movement of the body that is directly from Ancient Greek and Roman art. - [Steven] In fact, the lighting, which rakes across the surface, reminds me of an Ancient Greek or Roman relief carving and all of this is set within a simplified stone interior with rounded roman arches, simplified Tuscan columns and a pavement that creates a geometric stage for these figures. - [Beth] And if we follow the orthogonal lines created by that pavement, we end at a vanishing point. - [Steven] Right where the father's hand clasps the swords. - [Beth] If we think about the lushness, the luxuriousness of Rococo painting, to me this painting is the exact opposite. It's one that speaks of the virtue of simplicity over the the indulgence of the Rococo style. Exactly what the Enlightened philosophers were calling for artists to do. - [Steven] And audiences recognized that stark contrast. In fact the Salon had to stay open longer than had originally been scheduled just to accommodate the numbers of people that wanted to see it. - [Beth] One of the most fascinating things about this painting is that during the revolution, the brothers and their willingness to die for their country resonates with the revolutionaries who must make sacrifices of themselves and their families for the ideals of the revolution. - [Steven] And David does become a revolutionary himself and so it's very tempting to read back into this painting but we have to remember that the painting was completed several years before the revolution, although it was certainly informed by the same philosophical values that the revolution was founded on. - [Beth] David not only becomes a revolutionary, he votes for the beheading of the king. We're talking about an artist who was very politically engaged. - [Steven] And this painting becomes an icon for the revolution. - [Beth] When I look at this painting, I sense that patriotic fervor that must have been so palpable in the early years of the revolution when people were able to rise up against the abuses of a monarchy and to begin to imagine a republic for France. (mellow piano music)