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Art plays an important role in the understanding of the actions and events of the past. Through their paintings, music patterns, or sculptures, artists present various events and their personal attitude to them. Some artworks present universal themes such as love, life, courage, despair, or death, while others depict historical events or glorify great personalities. Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Oath of the Horatii is a vivid example of the combination of a historical background, glorified courage, and dedication in one piece of art (“Jacques-Louis David” n.p.). The physicality of the painting and the intense emotions it evokes became the fundamental concept of the work and were revolutionary and innovative for the art of the18th century.
The main aim of the artwork under analysis is to exalt emotions and feelings. The painting by Jacques-Louis David creates a story in the imagination of the viewer. It depicts three courageous men saluting toward their father, who holds up three swords as a sign that the men will have to fight to the death. The three women behind the father express their grief and fear of the tragic outcome for their family.
Every element of the artwork plays an important role in its perception. Line, shape, form, and color, together with space and texture, are the main elements of art. Balance, proportion, and rhythm of the composition are among the principles of art design. Jacques-Louis David’s The Oath of the Horatii proclaimed the new neoclassical style of art that emphasized dramatic lighting (the play of light and shadows) and ideal forms (“Jacques-Louis David” n.p.). To express the feelings and emotions of the characters, the painter employed a contrast of light and dark, known as chiaroscuro, to define the three-dimensional objects of the painting. David was trying to reach perfection in the expression of his understanding of the scene by means of harmony in colors. In The Oath of the Horatii, cool and lucid hues based on strong drawing create dramatic lighting and emphasize the deep meaning of the painting. The shades of green, brown, and pink soften the tension of the situation. The central color of the drawing, red, is rather intense. It is the color of love, fight, and strong emotions. It serves to express the central theme of the work and attracts the viewer’s attention. The red color in the clothing of the central figure, which is the focal point of the work, has a reflection in the clothing of one of the brothers depicted to the left of it. The artist combined it with light hues to show the purity of young men. David lit the figures of women and children with the stark light that contrasts with their emotions and the drama of the scene. The light, in combination with shadows, acquires a brick-toned reflection and surrounds the figures in the painting with a mystical halo. The majestic shadows that cover three massive columns in the background, together with the light graduation, create a frame for the painting and focus the attention of the viewer on the foreground, where the action takes place. The combination of dull and light colors of the painting provides a poetic mood and inspires the viewer to create odes to human courage. With the help of lights and shadows, the artist emphasizes his attitude to the presented event of ancient Rome.
Three is a symbolic number of the work. Three brothers on the left, three women on the right, and three swords in the center of the painting divide the composition into three parts. Three arches in the background link each group of people, symbolizing the entrance to the present (three brothers), the past (the father), and future (the women and children as a depiction of maternity and procreation). The three swords raised by the father reflect the central idea of the work and carry some mystery. The three parts of the painting help to keep the balance of the composition. The symbolism of the painting revolutionized the art of that time and marked David’s work with the new esthetic and moral order (“Jacques-Louis David” n.p.).
In terms of proportion and scale, the right side of the composition differs from the left side in its physical pattern. Moreover, they are also different in relation to the emotional implication. The artist opposes the brave determination of the brothers and the tense, geometric form of their figures to the postures of women, who express sorrow and tearful anguish. Their voiceless poses and the innocence of two the children emphasize this contrast. The distance between the figures accentuates these differences and separation. The straight lines of the raised swords and the edges of the blocks in the walls and floor depict strength and create the perspective scheme of the painting. Moreover, they symbolize determination and the absence of hypocrisy. The straightness of the painting shows the artist’s rejection of the courtier rules of his time.
Jacques-Louis David, the French painter of the 18th century, is the representative of the revolutionary approach to the visual art. Through the effective arrangement of the composition, prevailing harmony of the colors and shadows, and the spiritual unity of the figures, David’s work The Oath of the Horatii reflects the theme of courage, high morality, and the inevitability of fate. The work became the fundamental model of historical visual art and a bright example of the heritage of French neoclassicism.