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Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), one of the greatest French artists, is considered the central figure of the Neoclassical school in painting that began in France as an artistic reaction against the highly decorative and colorful Rococo style and flourished during the late XVIII – early XIX century. David lived at the time of political instability as well as cultural and spiritual impoverishment in France.
That is why his paintings made a great impact on the artistic world and the French people and were often used during the French Revolution for propagandist purposes (O’Connor).
David painted for different political regimes, namely King Louis XVI, the leaders of the French Revolution, and Emperor Napoleon, but while moving through all these stages he was always faithful to the artistic ideology and esthetics of Neoclassicism that shaped the work of a whole generation of painters in France (Galitz).
When David was 17, he began to attend the French Academy. After having won the Prix de Rome a decade later, the young artist spent four years in Italy where he studied at the Academy in Rome and visited Pompeii and Herculaneum making sketches of and finding inspiration in their ruins.
These archaeological studies and artistic experience in Italy helped David find his own artistic style. In 1784, the painter produced one of his most famous masterpieces, “The Oath of the Horatii”, which marked a new phase in his artistic career (Smith).
After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, David became politically active and was a deputy to the National Convention and a close friend of Robespierre and Danton.
One of David’s most important artistic achievements during this period was his painting “Marat Assassinated” produced in 1793. When the Jacobins were defeated in 1794, David was imprisoned and released only a year later. After the incarceration, the artist decided to stay out of politics and devoted himself to painting expressing his political views exclusively through oil and canvas. (3)
When Napoleon became Emperor, he made David First Painter of France and commissioned him to paint many works most of which were used for propagandist purposes. But when the Bourbon Dynasty regained power in 1816, David was exiled to Brussels and never returned to France again. Separated from the country and people he loved and was devoted to, the great painter died in 1825 at the age of 77 (Smith).
As an artist, David was deeply in love with painting and exhibited a dynamic and challenging nature. Before the French Revolution, he produced history paintings in which he applied the subjects, figures, and events from ancient times to the present invoking contemporary themes. After the Old Regime was toppled from power, the painter began to depict contemporary heroes and events.
His Neoclassical paintings are imbued with beautifully and minutely depicted dramatic scenes such as the Horatii brothers pledging their lives in “The Oath of the Horatii” (1784), Brutus lamenting over his dead sons in “The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons” (1789), the courageous Sabine women trying to halt the battle in “Intervention of the Sabine Women” (1798), the Spartan king courageously facing the forthcoming defeat in “Leonidas at Thermopylae” (1814), and other scenes in a number of works (Smith).
In his paintings, David demonstrates his perfect knowledge of human anatomy and the figures in his works appear real or ideal. His Neoclassical style is characterized by sculpted forms, rigorous shapes, and smooth polished skin. It became a wind of change in painting in culturally and spiritually impoverished France bringing the emotional resonance of art to a new level. His ideology was followed by a whole generation of young artists who continued the Neoclassical tradition and returned the heart and the soul to painting. David’s most famous students include Ingres, Gerard, Gros, Girodet, and others. (Smith; O’Connor)
Painted in 1784, “The Oath of the Horatii”, oil on canvas, is considered by many critics “a point of no return for painting” and the cornerstone both of David’s artistic career and the history of French painting. This masterpiece revived the great tradition of Poussin’s history painting, offered a fresh alternative to the decadent and much criticized court painting, and became the artistic embodiment of the ideals of the French Revolution before it broke out (Smith).
David was commissioned to produce “The Oath” by the Administrator of Royal Residences and showed it in the 1785 Salon in Paris. The painting had an enormous success, made the young artist a hero of the Salon, and established him as a master of Neoclassical painting. King Louis XVI even gave him lodgings in the Louvre (Kramer).
David took the theme from a story of the war between Alba and Rome in the VII century B.C. that had been told by Titus-Livy. According to the legend, the people of the two cities decided to settle a dispute between them by the results of a fight between three champions from Rome and Alba. Rome chose to be represented by the three Horatii brothers and Alba was represented by the three Curatii brothers.
The story’s drama was that Sabina, the sister of the Curatii brothers, was married to one of the Horatii brothers, and Camilla, the sister of the Horatii brothers, was in love with and engaged to one of the Curatii brothers. Only one of the Horatii brothers survived the combat and Rome was declared the victor (Jacques-Louis David: The Oath of the Horatii).
David’s painting depicts the three Horatii brothers solemnly swearing in front of their father who holds their swords to fight the Curatii brothers and the weeping of their sisters who are suppressed but seem to accept their fate. The significance of “The Oath of the Horatii” is that the painting contains a perfect sense of order and everything in it is important and has its purpose. The painter depicts the figures with great detail in terms of human anatomy. The drama of the scene is pervasive and there is no place for frivolous elements in the painting (O’Connor).
David chose to depict the beginning of Titus-Livy’s story, not its denouement, believing that this moment was the most intensive and dramatic. In order to emphasize the intensity of the scene, he introduced the idea of the oath (the legend does not mention it) and transformed the oath into a solemn act binding the heroic decisions of the figures in a single and sublime gesture (Jacques-Louis David: The Oath of the Horatii).
The painting is composed of the figures and the décor. The figures include three separate groups each of which has its purpose. The demand made by the father in the center is responded with an oath by the young men on the left and the lamentations of the women on the right. The determination of the sons here is contrasted with the anguish of the sisters. The décor is composed of massive columns and three impressive arches corresponding to the three groups of figures. Shades of green, red, and brown form a striking and mysterious halo around the figures in the painting (Jacques-Louis David: The Oath of the Horatii).
The rigorous arrangement of the figures and the décor, their ideal forms, the prefect harmony of the colors, lighting emphasizing the drama in “The Oath of the Horatii” are the fundamental characteristics which attest to a new esthetic order and proclaim a new style in painting, Neoclassicism. “The Oath” became a perfect model for other painters who used it in history painting for several decades (Jacques-Louis David: The Oath of the Horatii).
It is not surprising that during the French Revolution many saw in the oath of the Horatii an oath of allegiance to the newly proclaimed Republic in France and the sacrifice of their lovers by Sabine and Camilla was interpreted as the sacrifice of the monarchy by the
French (Jacques-Louis David: The Oath of the Horatii). While many critics may question the myth that these themes were initially conceived by David, no one doubts that “The Oath of the Horatii” became the most important masterpiece both in David’s artistic career and in the service of the revolutionary regime in France (Galitz).
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