The subject of Oath of the Horatii is taken from the Roman history. The cities of Rome and Alba Longa were under a never-ending dispute. In order to end this dispute, three brothers from the Horatius of Rome and three brothers from the Curatius family of Alba Longa were chosen to fight against each other. David portrays the three Horatius brothers (Horatii) at the moment of taking their oath to be victorius against the enemy by saluting their swords.

On the left, the three brothers are depicted as clasped to each other and their hands raised to the point of the swords held aloft by their father. The father holds the swords with one hand while his other hand is open towards heaven with his face turned up, presumably calling out to the gods and executing the oath ceremony. Just behind the father sit three women and two children in pain and sorrow. One of the young women is the sister of the Horatii, Camilla, and the other one is the wife of one of the Horatii, Sabine. The older women in darker coloured clothes hugging her grandchildren is the mother of the Horatii. The reason behind the women being so upset is that Camilla is engaged to one of the Curatius brothers who will fight against his brothers and that Sabine is the sister of the Curatius brothers. Hence, both women look absolutely crestfallen and even almost fainting knowing the fact that they will lose either their brothers or husband/fiancé. The right side of the painting is heavily filled with emotion while the left side has a solid and unsentimental atmosphere. The Horatii taking oath have cast their emotions aside for the sake of patriotism. Their erect position, firm grasping of each other and arms piercingly reaching forward indicate their courage, determination and valour. The father, located in the middle, plays a more balancing role and is neither as sad as the women and nor as solid as the brothers.

The emotional and physical contrast is supported by the three arches in the background. These three arches represents the three parts to the story and separates the figure groups from each other. The first part “Oath” is represented by the brothers taking oath, the second “War” is represented by the father, the third “Sorrow after war” is represented by the grieving women.

This symbolic expression style is supported with other elements too. The two swords in the father’s hand are curved, while one is straight. This straight sword indicates that only one brother will survive the fight. The triumphant brother will probably be the one who is closest to the viewer, since he has the same colour of clothes with the father. He will be the one who survives like the father. As a typical approach in the period of the painting, men are displayed virtuous, proud and powerful, on the other hand, women are weak and emotionally vulnerable.

The most important fact about the painting is that it is the cornerstone of Neo-Classicism, the rising new movement of the period. Neo-Classicism draws inspiration from Classical Greek and Classical Roman period stories and treats them with a new style. Lead by David in France, this movement portrays epic topics of courage, heroism, virtue and self-sacrifice in the name of morals and grand ideals.

This tendency towards the epic subjects shows strong parallelism with the period’s political agenda. The French Revolution was on the verge of emergence at the time when this painting was produced. Instead of the church or family, loyalty was growing more towards the state among people. Similarly, in David’s painting, the father encourages his sons towards fighting for the homeland despite the family bonds. The sons are recklessly obeying this and taking oath to sacrifice themselves for their nation. Emphasizing the patriotic concerns, David’s painting drew attention to the courage, pride and loyalty of the revolutionists of the period and motivating the people.

The technical excellence of the painting becomes prominent with the invisible brush strokes of the painter, even from a very close distance. This smooth surface finishing technique provides the piece with an extraordinary photographical sense of reality and enables the viewer to evaluate the painting with a neutral perspective.

Location: Musée du Louvre, Paris
Date: 1784
Period: 18th Century
Movement: Neo-Classicism

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