In Jacques-Louis David‘s The Oath of the Horatii, from the year 1784 — we catch a glimpse of Enlightenment idealism and the glorification of Spartan ideals that would ultimately lead to the French Revolution; the abolition of the French Monarchy, and the year “1793” which is also infamously known as “The Terror” when idealists run amok decided to remake society with the help of the guillotine.
It almost goes without saying that Jacques-Louis David would’ve been aware of the American Revolution, and the popular sentiment that men were born free. Without delving into the historical context too much, let’s take a look at the Oath of the Horatii, and see what visual cues are present and the abstractions they invoke.
From left to right, we first have the three young soldiers whom are taking an oath by reaching out to three swords which a more mature (and stately gentleman) holds. In a sense, the stately gentlemen with his beard and cape seems to invoke the feeling that he is perhaps a politician. It’s also worth noting that the three soldiers faces appear (from closest to the viewer to furthest): solemn, ecstatic, expectant. Beyond “the politician” are women, complete with a young baby and child whom are in a state of mourning. The setting for this scene is a stately building, high ceilinged (we can’t even see the ceiling), along with opaque shadows, and empty halls. I’d even venture as far as saying cold empty halls — perhaps its the ice block smoothness of the stones that make them appear cold, or the fact that the tint that makes the background appears slightly bluish-green.
It’s also interesting to take a look at the child whom is with the mournful women. While we can’t see the baby, we can see the child’s face — and while the eyes of the women are all averted from the oath taking place, the child’s eyes appear fixated on them. If his eyes aren’t fixated on the oath, then perhaps we should assume he’s staring off into space. Yet, a master like Jacques-Louis David might’ve more likely painted the child facing the other direction if he wanted his viewers not to make the mistake of possibly thinking that the child is staring at the oath.
Considering the Platonism which was prevalent during this time period, especially in France, (one might say Plato’s Republic was the textbook for the French Revolution — or at least a “guiding light” for the “utopia” they would hope to create) — it’s considering Platonism and the concept of the hidden universe that makes me feel inclined to believe David intended much of the subtext.
In summary, when I look at The Oath of the Horatii, I glimpse the anti-war movement of the future… a world where politicians lead youth into battle with utopian ideals that are as cold to humanity as the “halls of power” where these “ideals” are cooked up. The women and young are left to mourn, while young boys raised on fear and uncertainty will perpetuate the cycle of violence.