Oath of the Haratii
Commissioned by Louis XVI
Glorifies patriotism to the throne
, a seventeenth-century tragedy by Pierre Corneille, but David
in fact, twists the story; instead of depicting how the father of the triplet clan
defends his son before the Roman people (the younger Horatius had killed his
sister, as, when he returned from Alba, he saw his sister cursing Rome), he depicts
an imaginable oath, before the actual combat in Alba. The defense of the
murderous victor is forgotten.
Lictors Bringing Back to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons
After Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic, drove out the kings, he followed
Roman code and condemned his own sons to death because they had supported
the monarchy. Lictors, or Roman officials, bring in his sons’ bodies for burial,
while Brutus sits impassively in the shadow of the goddess Roma. In contrast, his
brightly lit wife and daughters succumb to grief at the sight of the corpses.
David aimed for absolute historical correctness in figures, furniture, and costume;
this style and specifically this picture decisively influenced the Revolution’s
fashions, furniture, and hairstyles.
Like Horatii, it concerns the rigor of a father who must contemplate the sacrifice
of his male offspring for the good of the country. Their end is ignominious.
David exploits an even starker syntax of disassociation, in order to call the
categories of male heroism into question. The immobile central actor vacates the
center of the composition, and sits in a shadowy corner. Other key elements of the
action are likewise scattered to the sides of the canvas, most conspicuously the
grief-striken female nurse at the far right. One great gap occupies the center;
across it, the opposition between male and female, between clenched angularity
and supple, curvilinear form, verges on disassociation. Meaningful connections
are made not so much in the actions and expressions depicted, but rather in the
mind of the viewer, which is activated by the gaps and silences between separate
and distinct elements.
The formal dismemberment of both composition and surface becomes not only
means but metaphor, for the dismemberment of Brutus sons is the unseen event
which defines all of the living figures, and the dismemberment of the family unit
– glossed over in the Horatii – is its consequence.
It encompasses a truly tragic recognition that the social body can come into being
only by means of a temporary transgression of the condition of humanity itself.
And as the existence of society violates the continuum of nature, so nature will
have its revenge.
The tension in the nurse, isolated at the far edge of the composition, in her own
private world of sorrow, is the chief formal and thematic counterweight to Brutus
himself. The tension visible in her jaw line, neck, and shoulder, the lean and
austere grandeur invested in her body, oppose the smooth, uninflected rendering
of Brutus’ wife; making the response of the noble matron seem somehow