The Oath of the Horatii (1784) by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Louvre, Paris
In the waning years of the 18th century, two morally flawed and incomplete intellectual systems arose to challenge the existing social order. One, Romanticism, emphasized individualism, emotional expression, the exotic and the irrational. The other, Neoclassicism, extolled tradition, rationalism, and the supremacy of principle and law. Both spoke in bold, idealistic terms, either to the heart or to the head, and together they swept away the Baroque Era and established the fundamental patterns of modern thought.
It is difficult to say which of the two has been more destructive to society or to human souls. Romanticism promoted a seductive brand of self-indulgent narcissism that has turned whole generations from the due worship of God toward self-idolatry; Neoclassicism offered comfort to atheistic states that have murdered tens of millions of people.
Yet both movements are responsible for the creation of magnificent, often beautiful and inspiring works of art; the difficulty lies in the messages they communicate.
Build a Better Tomorrow
We’ve already looked at Romanticism in this column (“The Solitary Wanderer Goes Astray,” November 2007), so let us address ourselves to the Neoclassicists and a work by perhaps the most prominent painter among them, Jacques-Louis David. His ambitious pieces, like The Oath of the Horatii, are accomplished with amazing technical skill and epitomize the Neoclassical aesthetic and its goal of reviving the spirit of the Greco-Roman world. But what of their meaning?
For David and his fellow French Neoclassicists, art was a serious business—too serious to be given over to Romantic daydreamers and their fatuous passions. Art should build moral character and make the world a better place. The decadence and “softness” (as they put it) of the art and society of their time should be recast according to a better model, and they could think of none better than the austere aesthetic of the Greeks and the Romans. Antique civilization had, above all others, attained the heights of nobility and purity in art and government; it lacked only the insights of Enlightenment rationalism to achieve absolute perfection. So convinced were these men of the need for such a wholesale reconstruction of French society that in 1789 they and large sectors of the population set about making it happen with revolutionary fervor.
David was an energetic participant. He was a close friend of Robespierre, one of the architects of the Reign of Terror. As a member of the National Assembly, he voted in 1793 to execute Louis XVI. Appointed Minister of Fine Arts, David enforced the Classic taste universally, even to the point of requiring public officials to adopt Roman dress. He oversaw the reformation of the Royal Academy of Art, whose royalist members had repeatedly snubbed him, and organized huge public ceremonies in honor of revolutionary heroes like Voltaire that foreshadowed the mass rallies of the Nazis and the Soviets. He was in essence the artistic dictator and official propagandist of the new republic.
Principle Above Passion
The Oath of the Horatii was completed in 1784, several years before the opening volleys of the French Revolution, but it clearly reflects the mood of the times. Ironically, David undertook it at the commission of Louis XVI, who had named him painter to the king and honored him with a room in the Louvre.
The title refers to an episode from the legendary history of Rome recorded by the Roman historian Livy. In order to settle a long-standing quarrel between Rome and the city of Alba Longa with as little bloodshed as possible, the two assembled forces agree to accept the result of a battle between just three men from each side. The Romans select for their champions the Horatii brothers and the Albans the three Curiatii brothers. This choice makes the affair particularly distressing because there are ties of affection between the two clans: One of the Horatii is married to a sister of the Curiatii, and a sister of the Horatii is engaged to one of the Curiatii.
David imagines a scene (not found in Livy’s account) that takes place just before the battle. A single fighting unit, the Horatii brothers stand resolutely in front of their father and swear allegiance to Rome over any familial loyalties they might have. They will follow principle, not their hearts. Nearby, their kinswomen and mother languish in postures of classically restrained despair: They know that no matter the outcome of the conflict, some of their loved ones must perish. They sit passively and—without exception—avert their eyes from the men. The male figures in contrast are upright and active—emotionless, but ready to confront the task appointed them. Even the young boy protectively clutched by the woman in black gazes wide-eyed toward the men, one of whom is his father: He too will grow up to be a fearless defender of his country.
Triumph of the Image
The moral of this tale had tremendous propaganda value for the Revolution.
No doubt the argument against needless violence appeared reasonable and enlightened, the appeal to patriotism, self-sacrifice, and masculinity admirable and virtuous. Upon such noble, disciplined ideals the Revolution could not but succeed to establish a just and lasting civilization.
David executes his homage to revolutionary values with the precision and clarity typical of the Neoclassical style. The focus is on meaning, not expression. He crisply delineates each form and figure, leaving no visible brushstrokes in the paint to blur details or betray his own hand. The personality of the artist is subordinated to his art, just as the individual citizen must be subordinated to the greater cause. With the entire tableau disposed parallel to the picture plane, like actors on a stage—perhaps too obviously so—spatial movement is minimized, though there is a rhythm of diagonals set up by the stance of the men’s legs and their weapons. All colors are muted, lest the viewer be tempted or enfeebled by sensual beauty, and the composition is visually balanced, with three clusters of figures crowned by three arches, to produce a frozen, timeless air—steely resolution before action.
David insisted on travelling to Rome for the production of the piece: “Only in Rome can I paint Romans,” he wrote. Upon its completion, cardinals and nobles in Rome flocked to see it as if it were a “rare animal,” and when it was unflatteringly hung in the Salon in Paris, popular outcry forced it to be relocated to better advantage. A later Salon acclaimed it the masterpiece that “restored to the French school of painting the purity of antique taste.”
Show No Mercy
Livy goes on to describe the conclusion of the drama. The battle is met, and two of the Horatii fall in quick succession, raising groans of despair from the Romans. But the one remaining brother, Horatius, fights on and single-handedly manages to kill all three of his opponents. He returns in triumph to Rome, but his distraught sister, whose betrothed he has just slain, curses him, whereupon he unceremoniously stabs her through the heart for “weeping for her country’s enemy.”
This heartless act, at first condemned by the Romans, then excused as an example of uncompromising civic duty, reveals the dark side of Neoclassical and revolutionary ideology. (David treated a similarly brutal theme a few years later, in a work concerning a Roman leader who ordered his own sons to be executed because they had plotted to overthrow the government and restore the monarchy.) Obedience must be absolute. Dissent must be crushed. There can be no loyalty but to the state. Christian virtues—love, mercy, and compassion—have no place in the revolutionary order, nor do family or God. Needless to say, these are the characteristics of a totalitarian state.
The French Revolution was of course virulently anti-clerical and anti-Catholic. Almost immediately after it began, the Mass was outlawed, churches and monasteries were ransacked and turned over to the state, priests and religious were required to swear an oath of fidelity to the Republic or face execution. To complete the official de-christianization of France, a deistic “Cult of the Supreme Being” (with David its chief liturgist) and an atheistic “Cult of Reason” were promoted to supplant the old religion (though they did not long survive).
No wonder Christian themes are virtually nonexistent in Neoclassical iconography. David “never painted religious subjects, they not inspiring him in the slightest degree . . . He often declared that the Scriptures spoke not to his heart . . . His god was Socrates, his religion love of country, liberty his worship” (John Cassell, The Works of Eminent Masters in Painting, 291, 293). He revered the Horatii as prototype martyrs of the Republic, in place of the discarded martyrs of the Church.
The tragedy in all this—for both the Neoclassicists and the Romantics—is that while they correctly recognize that the world is imperfect and in need of repair, they succumb to the age-old temptation of believing that human effort, applied without the grace of God, can bring paradise to earth. Both movements are consumed with nostalgia for a lost Eden. The Neoclassicists mistakenly identify this with a pagan, pre-Christian world, the Romantics with a primitive society freed from social restraints. Bereft of supernatural guidance, they both soon stumble into dark valleys of sin and error, taking art and lives with them. After ” Liberté, égalité, fraternité ” comes the guillotine. By the middle of the 19th century, Neoclassical painting had descended from its lofty if remorseless ideals into remarkably vapid and silly academic exercises populated with self-conscious models playing dress-up games. They would be unsparingly ridiculed by Modernists.
I do not mean to suggest that there is nothing admirable in Neoclassical or Romantic art or philosophy. Self-sacrifice, freedom, courage are admirable traits, as are the skill and expression displayed by their artistic productions, many of which are supremely beautiful. But because each system honors only one.aspect of human nature, the head or the heart (neither one informed by the Gifts of the Holy Spirit), the Romantics and the Neoclassicists created monsters—heartless heads or headless bodies, that are incapable of human or divine life. In the end, their art suffers for it.
The fact is, David wanted the vivifying influence of some spiritual faith. He was a mere materialist. Having no belief in Christianity, man became to him a machine with limbs and muscles. Hence his cold and stiff character; hence the want of mind, of soul, in his pictures. The inner man speaks not to us through the eyes: woman is, on his canvas, a mere beautiful animal, beautifully painted . . . David, imbued with the warm and elevating sympathies and the ennobling faith of Christ, would not have been the artist he was; he would have been truly great. His materialism stunted his conceptions and dwarfed his mind. (Cassell, 299)