In 1784, the already well-established artist Jacque-Louis David receives his first significant order – an order from the King himself. As a young artist full of ambition, David undertook a bold project in terms of style and depiction. Ignoring his education, and the fashion of painting bold subjects or mythology, David advocated strong colours, sharp outlines, and most interestingly, a strong moral purpose in his work.
Here, three males are depicted saluting their father, behind whom three women and two children cry. But who are they, and what is the significance of this scene? The three men saluting, as the title of the painting indicates, are the Horatii, triplets selected by the Roman emperor, Tullus Hostilius, to face the Curiatii (another set of triplets from Alba Longa) in battle. The result of this battle would decide the victors of the disastrous war between Rome and Alba Longa. Here, we see the three brothers make their oath to their father to return victorious, or die for their country.
Choosing this story, David provides us with an austere and bold example of patriotism and duty. The painting is austere because in this story, the Horatii and Curiatii are not strangers to one another. Rather, two of the Horatii sisters were engaged to Curiatii (hence their tears in the painting). Indeed, upon seeing her brother return triumphant (having been the sole survivor of the infamous battle), one of the sisters cries out realising her husband had been killed on the battlefield. Horatius, in turn, takes out his sword and kills his sister saying “So perish any Roman woman who mourns the enemy.”
In this way, David chooses to depict this specific story in order to stress the importance of two fundamental morals: courage and pride. The depiction of these would spawn a new movement in art, known as Neoclassicism. This movement called for morality, and a perfectionist approach to art that would create “a painting that the classical Greeks and Romans would unhesitatingly have taken for their own.”
One can clearly see David’s attempt to allude to the Hellenic period in this work. For example, the impeccable architecture of the atrium and rigid geometry of the characters, typical features from the Hellenic period. There is also a clear separation between each group of characters, characteristic of Greek pottery and Roman sarcophaguses. One must also pay attention to the way each character is painted. The Brothers, who stand for Rome, bravery, and pride, are straight and in a strong and, linear posture much like the pillars we see in the background. The women on the other hand, crushed by their human attachments are rounded, and heavy. Notice also how the women’s colours are dry and in this way, feeble. This dichotomy in composition would become somewhat of a signature in neoclassicism.
However, the scene depicted by David is in fact entirely fictional. Though the battle and Horatii’s murder of his sister are accounted for in many narratives, the artist invented this brotherly pledge. Most probably, this is because the oath accutely demonstrates a firm belief in the importance of pride and courage – admirable qualities to be found in a king, for whom, remember, this work was commissioned.