OATH OF THE HORATTI
"THOSE MARKS OF HEROISM AND CIVIC VIRTUE PRESENTED TOTHE EYES OF THE PEOPLE WILL ELECTRIFY THESOUL, AND SOW THE SEEDS OF GLORY ANDLOYALTY TO THE FATHERLAND."
JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID (REVOLUTIONARY CONVENTION, 1793)
David's painting is a deliberate celebration of the art, life, and morality of ancient Rome. The Roman Republic is at war, and the dispute is to be settled by mortal combat between three Roman brothers (the Horatii) and three enemy brothers (the Curatii). David shows the dramatic moment when the Horatii swear before their father their allegiance to the State, and a readiness to die on its behalf. But the story presents a difficult moral dilemma, for one of the Horatii brothers is married to one of the sisters of the Curatii, and a Horatii sister is betrothed to one of the Curatii brothers. They will choose self-sacrifice and loyalty to the Republic over family ties and personal emotion.
David intended this painting to be a propaganda picture, but even he could not have predicted how successfully it would fulfill this purpose. When it was painted, the ancien regime of the French monarchy, based on the divine right of kings, had only four years left. In 1789 the French Revolution, which David supported, replaced it with a new political order: the republican Nation State with its ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality. Heroic, authoritative and impeccably composed, his painting embodies the new political dream and epitomizes the neoclassical style. Ironically, the picture was commissioned by Louis XVI, who was guillotined in 1792.
The soldiers in this painting are presented as models for the ideal soldier. Designed to excite and inspire, with grim determined faces, their body language is unambiguous. the political and moral message is clear: duty and discipline are the supreme virtues, and if necessary the soldiers will die for them.