Oath of the Tennis Court

7:00 AM

Jacques - Louis David, Oath of the Tennis Court, 1791


Can something unfinished be considered a masterpiece? Can a painting that was planned to be 7 by 10 meters make something stir inside a viewer when viewing the piece if it is only 3.48 by 6.48 meters? I would argue yes. Take these questions and apply them to David’s Oath of the Tennis Court, a painting that sadly was never completed, but still hangs in the Chateau de Versailles. David had meticulously planned what he was going to depict. He had filled sketchbooks with minute details of the scene: possible positions for each subject, the architectural structure of the court, and other small details. He had even completed a detailed sketch of the entire painting, and yet, when it came time to complete the “pièce de resistance,” David stopped short.

The painting had become irrelevant. The outstretched hands, warm embraces, and camaraderie were no longer the center of the revolution. The guillotine was taking center stage, and David realized that his painting depicted people who were no longer considered to be loyal to the cause of the Oath. David had to make a decision. Either finish this painting and illustrate a historical event that was once viewed as a turning point, or leave the painting behind and ensure his safety and reputation. David chose the latter.

Oath of the Tennis Court allows viewers to witness David’s process of painting. Author Simon Lee explains that “David frequently first drew or painted his figures nude,” creating a template that he would clothe “with the final paint layer.” David’s detailed sketch depicts the men clothed, but I find this unfinished painting, with the nude men, more striking. The lack of clothing allows David to illustrate the movement of the painting. The tensed muscles portray the mood of the scene: invigorating, powerful, moving. I also find the partially painted hands to be a moving aspect of the painting. I don’t
quite know why, but my favorite element of David’s painting style is how he paints hands. In this piece, three hands have been painted. They seem to emanate black space around them, as if they are reaching into the painting; tearing through the blank white space to reveal the darkness behind the light. The hands, along with four painted heads, seem to not fit in the unfinished painting. I know that this makes sense, David didn’t finish the painting. But for some reason, I find it more striking that the only parts David painted before stopping are the parts that played a key role in the revolution. The heads are evident; thought provoked the revolution, but an explanation for the hands requires more insight. The hands in this painting, whether painted or not, depict camaraderie, movement, and power. The outstretched hands reach towards a goal. They praise the goal. David did not finish sketching the subject to which the hands reach, but in doing so, he provided the viewer with the chance to really think about what the hands are trying to grasp. Are the men actually reaching towards each other for a celebratory embrace, to praise the leader of the meeting, or are they reaching towards an intangible goal that only a revolution can achieve? 

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