Jacques-Louis David and Neoclassicism in the Late 18th and Early 19th Century

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Born in 1748 in France, Jacques-Louis David grew to become one of the most influential painters of all time, especially due to his leading role in the establishment of Neo-Classicism as an artistic school. During David’s early years, Rococo, the dominant art style of the time was facing competition from the emerging classical style (Zawadzki n.p). In 1774, Jacques-Louis David won the Prix de Rome scholarship and traveled to different parts of Italy and France. Although David became acquainted with different art approaches, he was greatly captivated by the neoclassicism style. Influenced by the classical art and traditions, the neoclassicism began in Rome and spread to other parts of Europe (Ilze 4). The style emphasized on the tents of antiquity: idealism, universality, harmony, and clarity. From the late 18th to early 19th century, Jacques-Louis David, who has a particular interest in politics used Neoclassicism to emphasize noble themes of public merits and personal sacrifice; as evident in his most famous painting, The Oath of Horatii.

David,  Jacques-Louis. The Oath of the Horatii. 1784, Louvre, Paris

The Oath of Haratii is 329 * 424cm oil on canvas artwork painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1784. Most scholars regard this masterpiece as an epitome of the neoclassical art style. According to Mary Zawadzki, the painter produced the artwork when the cities of Rome and Alba Longa were at war (n.p). Rather than sending their armies to battle, each city decided to nominate three men from one family to represent them in the fight. The painting depicts three men from the Horatii family of Rome saluting their father who is about to give them their swords. Although women and children weep in pain on the right-hand side of the painting, the three brothers show the willingness to sacrifice themselves for Rome.

I chose Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David due to its relevance in the history of art. First, the painting is a clear manifestation of the influence of the Age of Enlightenment which began in the 18th century.  It shows how painters such as Jacques-Louis David changed the history of Europe through their works. For instance, the Oath of Horatii increasingly emphasized on loyalty to the country rather to church or family. Notably, the painter through his painting enhanced the themes of public service and personal sacrifice in during the troubled history of Europe (Identify This Art n.p). Second, Oath of the Horatii stands out as an excellent example of a neoclassical painting since the painter integrated exceptional compositional techniques of neoclassicism. Jacques-Louis David used a broad range of colors, brightness, and symmetries so as to focus on the characters as well as tell the story behind the artwork. This neoclassical painting is significant since it influenced numerous artists and architects in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassical paintings, especially the Oath of the Horatii, changed my perception of art and visual culture. More specifically, the artist and his painting made me acknowledged art as a cause as well as a result of diverse political and social factors. Through this masterpiece, I recognize that art was an exceptional communication tool in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. During the French revolution, painters such as Jacques-Louis David used neoclassical styles to encourage patriotism, public service, and self-sacrifice while at the same oppose aristocratic lavishness, which was promoted by the Rococo style (Ilze 4). The influence of the neoclassical artistic school remains evident to date since artists continue to integrate social and political opinions in their artworks.

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