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David’s Oath of the Horatii was undoubtedly one of his most famous and prized works, quickly becoming the face of the French Revolution and the symbol of patriotism. The painting was exhibited in 1785, just four years before the revolution. It tells the story of two feuding cities, Rome and Alba. Both cities decide to select three men to fight in their name instead of sending all citizens to battle. Whoever was left standing would win the war. On the Roman side, the Horatii brothers were chosen. David’s invention of this moment of oath-taking focuses on the idea of a willingness to die for one’s country. In this story, one of the sisters of the Horatii brothers is consequently married to one of the Curiatii warriors from Alba who dies in battle. When the brother returns to find his sister disturbed by her husbands death, he kills her. The moral of the story is that one should be guided by patriotic feelings, not personal feelings about family.
Personal concern is seen as secondary. David is attempting to call attention to some of the issues that are taking place in modern France. The luxurious lifestyle devoted to the aristocracy was severely overpowering the notion of heroism. The state’s well-bing should be first priority. This was a really powerful idea, especially when there was tremendous unease regarding the monarchy. David is introducing the political narrative of sacrificing oneself for the greater good. This painting was not created in France, but Rome. David’s focus on antiquity radically broke from the Rococo style. This piece marks the birth of Neoclassicism. The frieze of figures in the painting almost look as if they could have been taken off a Roman vase. David puts emphasis on severity and starkness, the space is perfect and geometric; rational. Geometry is meant to evoke the notion of rationality.
Ironically, this painting was commissioned by the King of France and was exhibited in the Salon. It was a new style of painting for the time; a painting depicting virtuous behavior, the idea of sacrificing yourself on the grounds of principle and goodness. This piece was instantly popular and clearly resinated with the French people. The origins of the painting and the cultural and political contexts surrounding its inception was the "starting point for an arresting gesture that progressed from oath-taking to what
Oath of the Tennis Court was commissioned by an unofficial political body known as the Jacobins and was David’s piece in the first Salon of the Revolution in 1791. This highly finished drawing was a new take on traditional history painting. The piece depicts the moment during the Estates General of 1789 when the delegates of the Third Estate pledged they would remain in permanent assembly until a constitution was achieved: they would “die rather than disperse until France was free”( Crow, Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History. 35). To capture the intensity of the moment, David modeled the drawing after an already famous painting, Oath of the Horatii. By taking the intimate, powerful moment captured in the Oath of the Horatii and multiplying it numerous times, the piece directly reflects the virtuous opinions and beliefs of the greater majority in France.
Oath of the Tennis Court reflects the model of patriotic fervor from David’s earlier work, and was meant to become a gargantuan life-size painting. However, the history of this piece does not possess a happy ending. “This literal bonding of art and the primal moment of Revolutionary public life proved to be less a way forward than a cul-de-sac for history painting....when the artist forsakes the distance of metaphor, the actual public sphere will perpetually escape representation” (Crow, 35). This was the unfortunate fate of the Tennis Court project. The drawing depicts an oath to creating a stable political consensus, but this never came to be. The Jacobins split into antagonist monarchist and republican factions. These radical groups were stimulated by the panic induced by the economic crisis and the French military. “Today’s hero was likely to become tomorrow’s traitor” (Crow, 35). By 1992, David had abandoned his attempt to convert Oath of the Tennis Court into a painting.
Jacques-Louis David was an extremely skilled and brave French artist. Though classically trained in the Academy, David would not stand to work for those who put their own lavish lifestyles above the starving French citizens. At fist glance, David’s pieces appear to be traditional history paintings, but the time in which they were created and the strategic historical subject matter they depicted made added a degree of radicalness and controversy. The major difference between David’s paintings and the Rococo paintings that were popular within the upper class, is David felt like it was his duty as an artist to portray patriotism and virtue. David wanted his art to be seen by all French citizens, he truly believed that these visuals paired with virtuous ideals would play a vital role in France’s democratic future. To do so, David used emulation strategies, beginning with Roman antiquity (Oath of the Horatii). Later into the Revolution, David emulated his own well-known work to make an even stronger statement (Oath of the Tennis Court). Looking at history, it is clear that artists can change the course of events with the impact of one extraordinary work. Jacques-Louis David is no exception.
Crow, Thomas. Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History. 3. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2007. 18-54. Print.
Schama, Simon, dir. The Power of Art: Jacques-Louis David. Dir. LinkFilms for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm) LinkBBC Worldwide Ltd., and LinkFilms Media Group.. New York, N.Y. : Films Media Group, 2007. Film.
Winkler, Martin M. The Roman salute : cinema, history, ideology. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009.
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