Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: Oath of the Horatii

Oath of the Horatii is a canonical expression of Neoclassicism. Although it was painted as a royal commission in 1784, it became a defining image of the upcoming French Revolution. The painting depicts a scene from a Roman myth in which three brothers of Rome, the Horatii, are summoned by their father to fight three brothers from the rival city of Alba. The arrangement is further complicated by a marriage between a soldier in the painting and a sister of his enemies. Likewise, one of the soldiers of Alba is said to be engaged to a sister of the Horatii—the grieving woman in white on the right side of the painting. This message of duty to state over family was popular at the time of the Revolution.

Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David artThe artist, Jacques-Louis David, idealizes the Horatii brothers and their father. Their bodies are intensely muscular, free of blemishes, and energetically rigid. Nothing in this painting defies the laws of physics, but the soldiers are certainly shown at the upper limits of human fitness. Their geometric and austere posture is emphasized by the linear pattern on the floor and the classical columns of the background, a technique often used in Neoclassical works to evoke themes of rationality and virtue. In contrast, the women in the painting are shown curled up and left to a passive role.

Viewers of Oath of the Horatii often note the men in the painting show no emotion. This seems to me less because of the men's role in the scene—which is to be strictly disciplined—than because of David's own technique in rendering facial expressions. To be "locked on" to a military duty is an intensely emotional experience; it is not so much a lack of emotion as a suppression of emotional influence over behavior. If it were merely the soldiers' commitment to Rome that explained their lack of emotion, then the women in painting—who are given a different role—should express more emotion. But we find that their faces, too, lack significant expression. Nonetheless, David's Oath clearly played a powerful role in French history and art.

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