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Essay: Oath of the Horatii (painting)

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
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  • Published: 15 November 2019*
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  • Words: 1,031 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 5 (approx)

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The revolutionary painting Oath of the Horatii became an important part of David’s work and in the history of French painting. This painting is present as a prime example of Neoclassical art style. It following the same technique offers a variety of elements, which can be analyzed on the formal grounds. This picture is organized to focus on the clear details of the art, the men in it are presented with straight lines matching the columns in the background while the woman are presented like a curve just like the arches relying upon the columns. This indicates a strong connection between the role of men and woman in the ancient culture where men were defined by their rigidity and strength while woman totally lived on their support. Similarly, the straight lines create the impression of strength through the swords, only one of which is straight while the other two are curved which may indicate that only one brother may survive the battle.

The study of shapes, on the other hand, allows seeing the main action and essence of the picture. Here we see a group of three young men, the Horatii brothers, with sharp, geometric and muscled figures and their arms raised toward their father for an oath, who asks them to bear the consequences of the battle. He holds the three swords in his left hand and raises his right hand, which signifies sacrifice. The women seated behind the father are in more of a flowing pose and a softly curved shape emphasizing the contrast between the figures. The posture of the men is also carefully shaped which signifies firmness and determination through the spread of arms and legs.

Colour is also used to convey messages; different colours by shades of green, pink, brown and red are distributed across the painting. The brother on the front is seen to be wearing a dress matching the colour worn by his father and that by one of the woman, perhaps implying that he may be the sole survivor. The colours used are also dull in some manner so that the story behind the painting remains important rather than the painting itself. David uses contrasting light colours to gather the main focus on the swords and draw attention towards the father. The overall impression of the moralistic theme is well kept with the harmony of the colours.

An equally important element here is the wise and creative use of Space, which is carefully balanced through the distance between the figures. The decor and interior are also minimized with massive arches and columns in an architectural way to keep the focus on the main abstract of the image. The three archways in some matter symbolize to the three groups in the image presenting a series of different emotions. David here chooses not to create an illusionistic extension of space into a deep background but cuts of the space in an architectural setting to push the action in the foreground in the manner of Roman relief sculpture. Another way in which space is used is that the father’s hands clasping the swords are placed over the vanishing point of the perspective scheme, which again places importance on the hard lines and edges of the setting.

The texture of the painting is focused and clear with hard details, the use of brushstrokes is minimized with a very smooth texture, tiny brush strokes are almost not visible which is the quite opposite of the idea emphasized by the Rococo. This is done to not distract the viewers and keep the attention fixed.

The painting shows the three brothers on the left, the Horatii father in the center, and the three women along with two children on the right. This is a prime example of a visually balanced image where the father with the swords remains the main focus keeping the story behind it effective. The balance is also conveyed through the pyramid structure, which is constructed as the Horatii father holds swords to his sons to make the Oath, depicting a chaotic and intense atmosphere. The balance also creates emphasis to represent this important historical event.

This painting creates emphasis in a number of other ways, such as the background, which is de-emphasized to emphasize the figures in the front. Further, David uses a dark background and cold light to confront the figures and create a dramatic scene that carefully captures the attention of the viewer. The faces and expressions also stress the value of the drama; the women show the emotions of grief and tragedy since only they were allowed to feel, while the men are shown to be determined in their duty. Even though the artwork promotes pain and sorrow, important values such as that of sacrifice, morality and selfless service are portrayed.

Likewise Movement is also another important element in this painting where it is kept still to stress stability. The movement itself is turned in and compressed into emotions of the figures. The painting is intended to look like it is frozen in quality to value its message. In addition to this, the movement also fuels the composition of the whole image.

David makes this work an example of a closed art composition in a way that no illusion is captured or no extension is provided instead the aim of the painting is kept clear. It is shown to have clear boundaries in term of the straight lines of the edges of the wall blocks and floor slabs with the strong columns in the background. The passion of the viewers is well kept so that their mind does not escape from the actual history and its significance. A kind of environment is created just by the organization of figures where the main action is carried out by the figures themselves creating a harmonious yet diverse composition with a wide variety of figure type all in different poses. The scene is composed in a way that all the elements combine at the center point of the painting promoting a beautiful message of civic duty over the personal, which reflects the values of the age of enlightenment and the neoclassical approach of style.

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