- DavidOur PickBy Simon Lee
- Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the French RevolutionBy Warren Roberts
Important Art by Jacques-Louis David
The Oath of the Horatii depicts narrative from early Roman history. On the left, three young soldiers reach toward their father, pledging to fight for their homeland. They appear resolute and unified, every muscle in their bodies is actively engaged and forcefully described, as if to confirm their selflessness and bravery. These Roman Horatii brothers were to battle against three Curatii brothers from Alba to settle a territorial dispute between their city-states. They are willing to fight to the death, sacrificing themselves for home and family.
Underscoring their moral integrity, David compares their positive example with weakness. On the right, women and children collapse on each other, overwhelmed by their emotions and fear. Indeed, the women are more conflicted; one, a Curatii, was married to one of the Horatii while a Horatii sister was engaged to another of the Curatii. As they watch this dramatic pledge, they understand that either their husbands or their brothers were going to die and their loyalties are divided. David juxtaposes these two family groups, dividing the canvas not only into male and female roles, but contrasting the heroic and selfless with the fearful and uncertain.
This clarity is also reflected in the severity of the composition and style; while earlier artists had begun to mine Greco-Roman narratives as a fashionable trend in art, no other artist united these stories with David's stylistic minimalism and simplicity. The bare stage-like setting, organized by the sparse arches in the background, provides no distraction from the lesson being taught. Every figure and object in the painting contributes to this central moral.
Indeed, David even invented this scene to most concisely convey the essence of the narrative and its moral implications. In neither the written history, nor the 18th-century stage production of this story, do the sons pledge an oath to their father. David added this element because it allowed him to condense the larger epic into a singular moment, and to create the strongest possible emotional charge.
The enthusiastic reception of this painting at the Salon cemented David's reputation as the leading artist in the new Neoclassical style. Although the work was his first royal commission, and its emphasis on selflessness and patriotism was conceived with the monarchy in mind, its depiction of fraternity and heroic sacrifice would soon resonate with the French Revolution of 1789.
Another narrative of stoic self-sacrifice and dignity, David presented the suicide of Socrates as an admirable and noble act. Set in the bare scene of his prison cell, the muscular body of the aged philosopher is meant to convey his moral and intellectual fitness. He sits upright, preparing to swallow the bowl of poisonous hemlock without any hesitation or uncertainty; he would rather die than renounce his teachings. His arm is raised in an oratory gesture, lecturing until his last moment, while his students demonstrate a range of emotional responses to his execution.
David's painting draws from Plato's account of the event, linking this painting with a classical source; yet, as in The Oath of the Horatii, David takes artistic license to manipulate the scene for greater dramatic effect. He eliminates some of the figures mentioned in Plato's account and idealizes the aged figure of Socrates, making his message of heroic logic and intellectualism clear to the viewer.
As tensions rose in pre-revolutionary France, David's depiction of resistance against an unjust authority quickly became popular. In a letter to the famous British portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds, the artist John Boydell claimed it to be "the greatest effort of art since the Sistine Chapel and the stanza of Raphael."
In the dark shadows that fall across the lower left corner, sits a man on a bench; looking out at the viewer, his facial expression is difficult to decipher. Separated from the rest of the composition by this darkness, as well as a Doric column and silhouetted statue, the viewer's eye moves from him to the brightly lit, dramatically posed woman to the right. Her two children cling to her, as she reaches out an arm, a movement that is balanced by a figure in blue who has collapsed. Following this outstretched arm, the viewer finally arrives at the titular subject - the light falls upon a corpse being borne on a stretcher. The circuit connecting these three main actors: Brutus, his wife, and his dead son, is a tight circle, creating through light and gesture.
David uses these two fundamental components to succinctly retell a story from Roman history; here, Brutus, a father, has sentenced to death his two sons because of their treasonous actions. His patriotism was greater than even his love for his family, although his stoic grief reveals the dear cost of this conviction.
This painting, with its messaging about patriotism, loyalty, and sacrifice, was due to be exhibited at the Salon in the earliest days of the Revolution. The royal authorities, still in control of the exhibition, examined each work to ensure that it would not contribute to the political instability and further jeopardize the stability of the monarchy. One of David's paintings, a portrait of a known Jacobist, was refused, as was this charged depiction of Brutus. When this was announced, there was a public outcry; the painting was ultimately displayed under the protection of David's students. The painting inspired a passionate following and permeated popular culture; this work was even re-enacted with live actors from National Theatre following a November 1790 performance of Voltaire's Brutus.