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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.


Might David have been inspired by Thomas Banks, with whom he shared radical political views?

"We do not know if Banks met Jacques-Louis David in Rome, who studied there at the same time between 1775 and 1780, but there are parallels between the painter's and the sculptor's use of a noble moral classical subject and a search for an appropriately simpler visual form of expression. Compositional similarities suggest that David had seen Banks's Caractacus [1774-77; Stowe House, Buckinghamshire UK] before he painted Oath of the Horatii."

Julius Bryant, "The Royal Academy's 'violent democrat' Thomas Banks," The British Art Journal, vol. VI, no.3 (Winter 2005): 53.

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