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March 2004 - David, Neoclassism, and Rococo at the Louvre

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was one of France’s great artists. Born in Paris in 1748, his life spanned the turbulent years of the French Revolution and the First Empire, and he ended his days as a political exile in Brussels. Perhaps best known for his portrait of Napoleon astride a rearing stallion (on display at the Musée du Château de Malmaison), David also painted the famous portrait of the dying Jean-Paul Marat, (on display at the Musée d’Art Modern in Brussels).

A number of paintings by David are on exhibit in the Louvre. One of his great works, The Oath of the Horatii, hangs in the Denon wing. In this painting we see the three sons of the Horatii family who have been chosen to defend the honor of the city of Rome against the sons of the Curiatii family of the city of Alba. The Horatii sons are portrayed taking an oath to fight to win or die. Unfortunately, their sister Camille, portrayed in a white gown, is fiancée to one of the Curiatii brothers. Thus, the scene is set for a brutal outcome.

The picture can be divided into three elements, each of which is emphasized by an arc in the background. To the left, the three intense young men take a solemn vow with their arms outstretched in salute. In the center, the aging father proffers the swords with which his sons will do battle. The three brothers stand solidly, but the father stands with his weight on the back foot. Perhaps he is yielding to the ferociousness of his sons, or perhaps he is overcome with the burden of sacrifice.

The women, who are portrayed on the right, are collapsed in sorrowful resignation in stark contrast to the strength and bravado of the sons. Even the pale colors of their gowns, unlike the vivid colors of the men’s garments, reflect acquiescence.

According to Roman legend, the Horatii brothers are triplets. Only one survives the battle, and he returns to kill his sister Camille, who mourns her dead fiancé.

Because of its austere treatment of the theme of patriotic duty, The Oath of the Horatii is one of the works that best illustrates the Neoclassic school of art. This school, of which David was the leading proponent, was in part a reaction to the frivolous and gracious style of Rococo art that was prevalent during the 18th century.

Two French artists that epitomize the Rococo style are François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Boucher may be best known for his sassy L’Odalisque (The Concubine; Louvre, not on display), a portrait of a woman brazenly baring her plump, pink fanny, while Fragonard’s Les hazards heureux de l’escarpolette (The Delightful Possibilities of a Swing; Wallace Collection, London) portrays an elated voyeur looking up the billowing skirt of a demoiselle floating above on a swing.

Paintings by David and the Neoclassicists can be found at the Louvre in the Denon wing (first floor, room 75) and the Sully wing (second floor, room 54). Paintings by Boucher and Fragonard can also be found in the Sully wing including the saucy La Chemise Enlevée (The Removed Shirt) by Fragonard, giving another perspective of ample, bare buttocks.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2004