Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oath of the Horatii

One of the ways I'm using my furlough time is an effort to expand my understanding of modern art, defined, perhaps arbitrarily, as the period following Rococo and sliding toward that even more amorphous era called "contemporary art."

I have tackled this project for a number of reasons, one of which is my envy of students who dive into the humanities with a gusto I haven't experienced since my early 20s. I've forgotten so much from that period -- even though I teach about modernism in many of my classes -- that it's time to refresh my visual literacy.

One piece that calls for careful analysis is Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii (1784, oil on canvas). A neoclassical masterpiece, the painting conveys the virtue of a strong state, particularly when contrasted with the presumed weakness of the family. In Oath, Horace presents swords to his three sons, the Horatii, who have agreed to fight three representatives, the Curiatii, from neighboring Alba Longa. This single battle will decide the outcome of the war.

Interpreters typically read the composition of Oath as three triple-field rows, but I'll concentrate on more obvious triptych of left, right, and center columns. On the left, the Horatii stand in unison, a balance of triangles meant to convey truth and order. The warriors' energetic grasp for weapons finds balance in their expressions of stoic calm; they will do their duty without undue emotion.

Horace, in center, appears to bestow a benediction upon his sons, with one hand pointed slightly above them toward the heavens. Yet tracing the angles from hand to feet to feet to hands suggests a (mostly) closed-loop of rational choice, one that does not require external blessing. Horace, like his heroic sons, conveys calm; sending his sons to war calls neither for celebration nor for tears.

The women to the right, in contrast, weep for the imminent losses they will suffer, both in terms of their brothers and their loved ones in Alba (the families are related in several ways). Their curved forms and disconnected gaze from the warriors conveys David's attitude toward the weak and insular nature of personal and familial concerns.

Historically-minded viewers know that one of the sisters in this scene will suffer grievously for her choice to bemoan the death of her husband, one of the Curiatii, rather than respect the sacrifices made by her brothers for Rome (only one returns alive). In this context, Oath offers an unambiguous message about the need to subjugate personal desire beneath national exigency.

And yet this statement of patriotism served conflicting causes. Originally commissioned by Louis XVI, Oath originally fulfilled an uncontroversially didactic purpose, ennobling the French populous (and incidentally affirming the power of the French state). Of course, following the upheavals of 1789 and the bloody separation of the king's crown from his body, the newly empowered revolutionaries found no problem reinterpreting David's work according to their own conceits.

The artist himself showed similar flexibility. David cheerfully claimed the prizes of the Royal academy and yet quickly joined the side of the revolutionaries, even participating in Robespierre's Reign of Terror. David fared well enough through this period of strife, selling his gifts to king, jacobin, and emperor alike before finally accepting exile in Brussels after the fall of Napoleon. Interestingly, while the painter was not allowed to be buried in France, David literally left his heart in Paris. It remains buried there today.

You might find it easy to remember the completion date for Oath, generally stated as 1784 (sometimes 1784-85). Just add 200 years and sing a few lyrics to Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA. You'll discover a parallel between these two works in the ways powerful people often manipulate the sacrifices of others for their own benefit. Indeed, anyone who blanched at hearing The Boss's ode to returning Vietnam vets at Ronald Reagan reelection events in 1984 can appreciate the odd history of David's Oath of the Horatii.

The dead and wounded will never lack people willing to claim their voices for political purposes.

(Public domain image from Wikipedia Commons)

1 comment:

Jenny Wood said...

Lots of good insight! I like this painting but I don't like what it represents - the state over the family.