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David’s “oath of the Horatii”: what symbols the artist encoded in the Patriotic Manifesto

In 1785, visitors to the Paris salon were shocked by the painting of David – “the Oath of the Horatii”, which later became a masterpiece of Neoclassicism. The canvas contains many remarkable nuances that contain hidden meanings of the artist.
In 1784-1785, David wrote The Horatii Oath and demonstrated it in Rome. The painting immediately became a huge success with critics and the public and remains one of the most famous paintings in the neoclassical style. Only one critic spoke unfavorably about the painting: the French scientist and collector Serou d’agencourt noted that such architecture, which David depicted in the background of the picture, was not in Rome until the time of the Late Empire. Absurd reproaches? Probably. But David was quite reasonable about this criticism and subsequently studied the architecture of the time he described very carefully. The painting was written for Louis XVI, and continues the trend of the end of the XVIII century, when artists became massively interested in ancient subjects.
Legend. Win or die.
“The oath of the Horatii” is a historical painting that depicts a scene that arose in 669 BC about a dispute between two competing cities, Rome and Alba Longa. A terrible argument broke out. It was decided to send three warriors from each city to fight. The winning city will be the hometown of the surviving warrior. From Rome, three Horatii brothers from the Roman family agree to end the war by fighting three brothers from the Curiati family (Alba Longa). Of the three Horatii brothers, only one survives the battle. It is the surviving brother who can kill the other three fighters from Alba Longa. Hence the name – the painting depicts the moment when Horatio takes an oath to defend Rome. Horace the elder, preparing his sons, calls them to swear. Thus, describing this story, David emphasizes the importance of patriotism and male self-sacrifice for the sake of their homeland.

Heroes-men and women
Valor is the main quality of the characters in David’s painting. It is reflected both in the atmosphere of the picture and in its details. Three brothers, each willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of Rome, greet their father, who hands them swords. It is enough to pay attention to the tense muscles of the heroes, their warlike faces, their absolute readiness for battle, and other nuances. Their figures are citadels of patriotism. Helmets, swords, sandals, togas – all this seems authentic. It is interesting that in the preparation of the characters ‘ clothing, David was equal to ancient coins, medals, engravings and bronzes. Men are symbols of the highest virtues of Rome. Their clarity of purpose, reflected by the simple but powerful use of color contrasts, gives the picture a special intensity.

The figures of women and children are depicted bent and unassembled in contrast to the belligerent straightness of men. Two tearful women in the foreground emphasize the drama of the upcoming event. In the lower right corner, David depicts a woman who is crying. This is Camilla, the sister of the Horatii brothers, who is also betrothed to one of the soldiers of Alba Longa. The other girl next to her is the sister of the warrior Alba Longa and the fiancee of one of the Horatii brothers. Their situation is especially tragic: they cry from the knowledge that in any case they will lose their loved ones. All women, of course, understand that they may not see their relatives again. The woman at the back of the stage is the mother of the Horatii brothers, hugging the children who are probably destined to grow up without a father… Children’s eyes are full of fear – they are still too naive and small to understand the tragedy of the situation. Despite these matrimonial ties between the two warring cities, and despite the tears and pleas of the women, the three Horatii obey their father’s call to save Rome.
Scene

The plot unfolds in the courtyard, which is poorly lit by the Zenith sun. The deep dark scene increases the tension and suggests the inevitability of the fatal battle of the Horatii. It is not for nothing that the artist used the Doric order (masculine, strict, masculine). It defines the severity of columns and capitals. The visual treatment of the scene (solid contours, naked space, clear color, frieze-like composition and clear lighting) is as strict as the subject matter of the painting.

Symbolism of the painting

1. Everything in the picture is focused on the point of descent of the three swords – this is the main compositional point of the canvas. Swords are shaken by old Horace in a red toga (a symbol of belligerence in this context) and with a manly beard. His right hand is open-a sign of inexorable fate. The left hand holds the blades tightly. Horace’s hand and swords form the likeness of a shining star as a symbol of duty overshadowing personal destiny.
2. All the men are depicted in straight lines like the indestructible columns in the background, which indicates their rigidity and strength. While the women are curved like arches that are supported by columns.
3. The use of straight lines for power symbols is also demonstrated on swords: two of them are curved, and the third is straight. This is probably a clue that only one of the brothers will survive this fight.
4. The picture is organized by the number three: three brothers, three women, three swords, three arches.
Neoclassicism presupposes values such as stoicism, self-sacrifice, duty, patriotism, and reason. Thus, the idealized art of classical antiquity was the main vehicle for the message of David, the crown of which was The ” horatian Oath»

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