Friday, May 4

David and the Horatii

Oath of the Horatii (1784) 329.8 × 424.8 cm (129.8 × 167.2 in)
Louvre; Paris

The brothers Horatii, hailing from Rome, accept the charge to fight the Curiatii also three brothers,  from neighboring Alba Longa, to settle a war between the two city states. A proud father Publius Sr. raises swords to his unified sons, at a high pitch of stoicism. Their tribute to Rome is considered a great honor. Averting the crisis is a necessity.

Jaques-Louis David has a power which he employs in the contrast of powerful actionable men who are all muscle, guts and steel, to the weeping women which they pay no attention. Each knows full well the dangers of this undertaking, their bloodshed to save the lives of many. Their sister stands to lose a fiancé in the brothers Curiatii adding to her dismay.

Upon the day of the battle the Horatii three dismount, clad and armed to kill. The entire legion of warriors watch from their respective sides, as the fate of their land lies in the hands of but three. Battle ensues, the back and forth is strong both sides have great warriors. When suddenly two Horatii are struck down, but not before grave injury is inflicted upon their foes. The last remaining brother Publius Jr., outnumbered three to one, turns and runs. The men from Rome moan at the show of cowardice. The brothers Curiatii follow his retreat only to have their wounds agitated and inflamed. Using this advantage, and by separating his opponents Publius is able to execute the Curiatii one by one.

Considered the preeminent painter of his time, Jaques-Louis David's found himself rising to popularity alongside his paintings. After eleven months of painting, people visited the finished Oath of the Horatii at his studio in the Piazza del Popolo. So struck by its magnificence the people laid a carpet of flowers beneath. The painting moved to the Louvre and when a free exhibition was held the painting became an instant success, giving pause to the French public.

Publius returns to Rome and he is given a hero's welcome, the mantle of his victory is hung in the piazza for all to see. When his sister finds that he has defeated the Curiattii she cries out for her fallen fiancé. Publius is enraged by her actions and thrusts his sword into her chest killing her saying, "So perish any Roman woman who mourns the enemy". This pride he feels for Rome and the anger he still harbors for brothers lost is too much for him to control.

The Horatii is as neoclassical as it gets, and perhaps David is the namesake of the movement. The figures are certainly modeled in the tradition of ancient Greece, but David is far too invested to abandon reality for the ideal. It is also a moral history painting and a work of propaganda. David  needed his painting to appeal to the people and those moralist thinkers the philosophers. Although its morals may not align with our own the painting has a strong effect. Honor and sacrifice are notably strong feelings, it also invokes country and loss, and victory for that matter. The painting is seen as an image that defined the following French revolution for these reasons. David was a master technician at powerful narrative that reaches to the core.

Tullus the king of Rome, despite his recent victory, is moved to bring Publius to trial. It is decided then that he should be put to death. Publius Sr. pleads to the king to let the people decide his sons fate, that he has lost three children already and could not stand to lose another.  The King agrees. Upon seeing Publis' fearless appearance towards the sentence and his fathers passionate plea the people decide to let him live remembering his great victory for Rome.

No part of a painting monumental as this is left to chance. 

(Live video at the Luvre)

The Death of Socrates (1787) 130X196 cm

Condemed to death for undermining the authority of the church, Socrates drinks a chalice of hemlock in a brackish mood and with a defiant gesture. This painting also finished before the revolution.

the Death of Marat; 1793 (64 in × 50 in)
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat murdered in his bath.

David fun facts:

-Davids father, an iron merchant was killed in a pistol duel
  when Jacques-Louis was seven
-His cheek was scarred from a sword fight which became a malignant tumor and gave     him a speech impediment
-He once attempted to starve himself to death after not winning
  the coveted Prix de Rome
-Was sent to study under François Boucher who passed him off
-Spent time in jail for voting on the beheading of the king
-Worked as official portrait painter to the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte