Oath of the Horatii is a painting by the French painter Jacques-Louis David. It is a large oil on canvas that was commissioned by Charles-Claude Flahaut de la Billaderie, comte d’Angiviller, the minister of fine arts under King Louis XVI. Done in the Neoclassical style, it was supposed to evoke feelings of loyalty to the king and the state.
Oath of the Horatii depicts the ancient Roman story of the ritual duel between the Horatii family of Rome and the Curiatii family from Alba Longa. In the painting, the three Horatii brothers pledge to defeat their enemies or die. The three warriors stoically receive their swords from their unemotional father as the women of the family weep in a corner.
The story depicted in the painting is one of civic duty and sacrifice over personal feelings. It is a reflection of the principles of Neoclassicism and the Age of Reason.
David finished the painting in 1784. He exhibited it at the Paris Salon in 1785. It immediately became a hit and cemented David’s reputation as a preeminent painter of the era.
Oath of the Horatii remains one of the greatest examples of Neoclassical art and one of the most famous paintings in the history of French art. It currently hangs in the Louvre in Paris.
Context and Story
The story depicted in Oath of the Horatii comes from a popular Roman legend that was elaborated by the Roman historian Titus Levy. It talks about the conflict between the cities of Rome and Alba Longa.
Because a battle between the cities would have angered the gods, the rulers of each city decided that they would not send their soldiers to war. Instead, they agreed that they would each choose three individuals to fight for them in a ritual duel. The three Horatii brothers of Rome would face off against the three Curatii brothers from Alba Longa.
The solemn moment in the painting, however, is David’s own invention. In the scene, the three Horatii brothers courageously salute their father. Brave and stoic, the brothers swear an oath to fight for their republic.
Behind the father, the women of the family are stricken with grief. The situation is complicated because the Horatii and the Curatii were linked by marriage.
Camilla, the woman in the far right, is betrothed to a Curatii brother. However the duel ends, she is bound to lose someone. Beside her sits Sabina, a Curiatius whose Horatii husband is about to face off against her brother. Behind them, the mother of the Horatii brothers comforts two of her grandchildren.
According to legend, only one of the three brothers survives the battle with the Curatii. He comes home to find Camilla cursing his beloved Rome because her Curatius fiancé was killed during the duel. Angered, the Horatii brother draws his sword and kills her.
This final scene, in which brother kills sister, was what David originally wanted to depict for the commissioned painting. In the end, he thought the scene was too brutal and chose, instead, to paint the oath-taking scene.
Oath of the Horatii was one of the first masterpieces to break away from the Rococo style. The pictorial treatment is quintessentially Neoclassical, with sober colors, harsh lighting, sharp contours, large empty spaces, and a broad and simple frieze-like composition with life-size figures. The room’s geometry is emphasized, and the scene is clearly organized, with the three groups of figures positioned in front of the three arches.
The painting lacks the wispy, soft-focus brushstrokes of Rococo art. Here, the brushstrokes are invisible, and the surface of the work is smooth, removing the focus from the painter’s technique and placing it on the painting itself. The background is shrouded in darkness and de-emphasized, while strong slanting light emphasizes the figures in the foreground.
David gave the male figures tense muscles and masculine bodies drawn with straight lines, symbolizing strength and reflecting the columns in the background. He dressed the men in vivid reds and blues.
In contrast, the Horatii women were painted in fluid contours, reflecting the arches that support the columns. Slumped in their heartbreak, they were dressed in muted creams, nudes, and siennas.
Only one brother was dressed in vibrant colors like those of the father, seemingly insinuating that he will be the sole survivor. Meanwhile, the clothing of the other two brothers was obscured and muted, much like those of the grieving women.
When the Oath of the Horatii was commissioned, the king’s minister specified that it was to convey devotion to the king and the state. However, David’s message veered slightly from what the minister wanted.
Set in republican Rome, Oath of the Horatii shows no king — just a family torn apart by war and patriotism. Though it does promote patriotic sacrifice, stoicism, love of country, purpose, and courage, it is also saying that loyalty should take precedence over everything else, even family.
David finished Oath of the Horatii in his studio in Rome and showed it there and at the Paris Salon in 1785. It made him famous on a global scale and enabled him to take on students. It became one of the finest paintings done in the Neoclassical style in France and one of the defining images from the years before and during the French Revolution.
Oath of the Horatii came to be known as a shining example of Neoclassical art, much like The Vow of Louis XIII (1824) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Parnassus (1761) by Anton Raphael Mengs. Along with The Death of Socrates (1781), Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass (1801), Mars Being Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1824), and The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), it is one of David’s greatest artworks.
David’s next celebrated painting after Oath of the Horatii was The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789). It depicts a scene showing Lucius Junius Brutus after he had ordered the deaths of his sons. Like Oath of the Horatii, this painting dealt with the subjects of sacrifice, patriotism, and loyalty.
Art Encyclopedia. (n.d.) The Oath of the Horatii (1785) by Jacques-Louis David. Retrieved from http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-paintings/oath-of-the-horatii.htm
Lerouge, O. (n.d.) The Oath of the Horatii. Retrieved from https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/oath-horatii
McCoy, C. (n.d.) David, Oath of the Horatii. Retrieved from https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/later-europe-and-americas/enlightenment-revolution/a/david-oath-of-the-horatii
McMullen, R.D. (Jan.12, 2000) Jacques-Louis David. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jacques-Louis-David-French-painter#ref277389