The Oath of the Horatii was David’s first commission for the Academy and was inspired by an event in Roman history. David tells the heroic story of the Horatii brothers (three men on the left) who were chosen by the Romans to challenge the Curiatii from the neighboring town of Alba. As they receive their weapons from their father, the brothers are swearing to defend their land or die. One of the women on the right is Camilla who is engaged to one of the Curiatii brothers posed to fight while one of the Curiatii sisters, Sabina, is married to a Horatii brother and resting her head upon Camilla. The women cling to each other in grief knowing they will either lose a brother or a husband. A nurse shelters the children from the scene, but a curious little boy takes a peek at the dramatics. Despite the heartbreak, the men stand steadfast in their oath to defend Rome. Dramatic scenes such as this were popular among French viewers as there was an interest in art that could reform public morality and empower the nation.
Set inside an empty stone hall, the painting is divided into three sections by the three stone arches in the background and is flooded by light from a hidden window on the left. The light glitters on the swords held by the father in the middle section and bounces of the helmets worn by the brothers. The three brothers stand firmly together, their arms outstretched towards the swords. The bodies of the men are muscular and energetic showing David’s talent in portraying the body. Their vigorous bodies stand in contrast to that of the women, who are slumped on the floor and are all sinuous curves and no muscle. The men wear bold colors of red and blue while the women appear more muted. The contrasts between the bodies show not only represent the differences between the roles of men in women in society, but also the two sides to war: honor and celebration on one side, anguish and misfortune on the other. With the depiction of the bodies and the classical subject matter, The Oath of the Horatii became an international sensation and a champion of the neoclassical style.
David poses a tough moral question within The Oath of the Horatii: does an individual’s allegiance lay ultimately with the family or the nation? While David has clearly expressed his answer with the determined and resolute faces of the brothers, he not so subtly reminds us of the costs when nation is placed over family. The message that patriotism trumps all other things has gotten The Oath of the Horatii to be attributed with the start of the French Revolution which took place four years after this painting was completed.