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Oath of the Horatii

Louvre, Paris


Dorothy Johnson comments on the importance of gesture in David’s Oath of the Horatii :

“[B]y attending to the importance of the face as the essential key to meaning and expression…a revolution in style has been overlooked in which the face was diminished in importance and assigned a relatively minor role within the overall configuration of the body. This dramatic aesthetic revolution, which made a lasting and indelible impact on French art, privileged the entire body over the head. The expressive characteristics of the hands and feet, the posture of a figure, and its corporal configuration rivaled physiognomic characterization in importance. This new, overriding interest in a system of corporeal signs, with the face functioning as one signifier among many, was crystallized by David in 1784-85 in his Oath of the Horatii, a work that radically challenged the classicized Rococo style, which dominated French art from the 1750’s to the early 1780’s. David imposed on French painting a new aesthetic of the body, in which the configuration of the entire human figure radiated meaning and served as the locus of expressivity and communication. This revolutionary, corporeal aesthetic, which would dominate French painting in the late eighteenth and early decades of the nineteenth century, was encapsulated by Diderot in one of his most apothegmatic utterances: ‘…there are sublime gestures that oratorical eloquence can never convey.’”

Dorothy Johnson, “Corporality and Communication: The Gestural Revolution of Diderot, David, and The Oath of the Horatii,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 71, no. 1 (March 1989): 92.

Related Subjects by Other Artists:

Gavin Hamilton, The Oath of Brutus, 1767 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven)

Heinrich Füger, Judgment of Brutus, 1799

About the Artist

Born: Paris, 30 August 1748
Died: Brussels, 29 December 1825
Nationality: French