The Oath of the Horatii

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Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784
By KATHERINE GRABOWSKY

From the vibrancy of the red cloth to the shadows illuminating the powerful muscles of the parallel arms, the second I laid my eyes on this painting, the intensity became apparent. Just like how the passion and emotion sparks a fire of motivation in me while I read about David's accomplishments and my brightly-lit clock shows that a new day has rolled in, Jacques Louis David wanted this painting to spark a revolution in the minds of the moderate citizens who did not feel much for change. Jacques Louis David took his career past art and developed an interest in politics and societal transformation. Don’t just understand the revolution, but be willing to die for your country, pleads David through this painting of martyrdom.

The passion and strength of the men contrasts the despair of the women on the side. As with history, love always brings a twist. Not only do the Horatii brothers pledge their allegiance to Rome, but a sister of one of the brothers is in love with a rival member. “Boy meets girl until boy is killed by girl’s brother in a Roman war” creates a whole new dimension to this revolutionary painting. This woman is forced to choose between her brother who she has grown up with, or her true love who she wants to spend the rest of her life with. Contradicting this painting, Robespierre writes in his “Republic of Virtue,” that, “men of all countries are brothers, and the different peoples must help one another.” David’s painting shows three brothers chosen as representatives to fight until the death against another city’s men. If men of all countries are brothers, the men in the painting are clearly doing something wrong. Do not kill your enemies, but embrace them, says Robespierre, (though, I’m sure the many people guillotined by Robespierre would oppose his loyalty to this statement).

The men in this painting stand for martyrdom and dying for your country, something David respected. In 1794, David even created a ceremony for two martyrs, Barra and Viala. He organized the chain of events for the ceremony, creating a moment of silence followed by a unanimous cry of “They have died for their country!” three times. Then, at the end of the ceremony, the despair turns into rejoicing as the people cry out, “They are immortal!” David felt this martyrdom needed to be appreciated as a sign of love for their country and their people. This painting signifies David’s respect for martyrdom and the impact he felt this had on the revolution. While the focus is on the center of the painting, the will of the men to die for their country on one side, and the despair of the women illuminated by the light on the other side, draw in human emotion.

The Oath of the Horatii changed the ways of revolutionary paintings and created a new kind of art. Not only does David’s painting tell a story, but it also commemorates. For all the martyrs who have died for their country, he pledges allegiance. This painting lasts through the ages.

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