When Jacques Louis David created The Oath of the Horatii, in 1784-1785, France was on the verge of the Revolution that would come just a few years later in 1789. David would play a role in it and was its ardent supporter (Tansey and Kleiner, 917). Enlightenment rose as a philosophical ideal that had an impact in art. It suggested that art should have a moral dimension and serve as a lesson to the viewer. At the same time, as archaeology emerged as a new science with new spectacular findings in Rome and authors like the German philosopher Winckelmann started praising the art of Classical Greece as the ultimate artistic achievement, Classical subjects in art became popular (Gontar, 2003). Neoclassicism, which David served for most his career, embraced the ideas of Enlightenment and focused on depicting scenes from the Classical mythology and history that would have an educational purpose.
On the contrary, Theodore Gericault created his own work The Raft of the Medusa in different historical, political and artistic circumstances. In 1818-1819 the world had already experienced the French Revolution of 1789, the terror that followed it, the rise and fall of Napoleon who was Emperor of France between 1804 and 1815. Romanticism and the ideas surrounding it had emerged as a response to the philosophy of Enlightenment and to a certain extent to the way Neoclassical artists viewed the world and art (Galitz, 2004). Reason and order were no longer important and emotions, nature, imagination and passion took their place in the creative process (“Neoclassicism and Romanticism”). Although the style appeared as early as 1750, it seems to have flourished from 1800 to 1840, the period Gericault created his work (Tansey and Kleiner, 904).
Both works of art are paintings created with oil colors on canvases. The material is created by combination of pigment and an oil binding medium. This is applied on the canvas and although it takes longer to dry than other paints, it gives greater freedom to the artist to work on the painting. The artist applies the color with different brushes according to the effect and detail he/she wants to portray in every part of the painting (“Oil Painting: Materials and Techniques”). The process of painting and the materials used would have been essentially the same for both artists as little has changed in the thirty years that separate them.
Both artists chose to create large scale paintings. The Oath of the Horatii measures 11’ x 14’, while The Raft of the Medusa 16’ x 23’ (Tansey and Kleiner, 918 & 942). Both paintings share a pyramidal composition, while primarily darker, somber colors have been used. However, David’s composition is much less crowded and seems more ordered, as the figures are arranged in two groups: four standing men that raise their swords, placed at the center of the painting and four women presented seated in the sidelines and weeping. The bright red garment worn by the central male figure draws attention to the main scene, which depicts the oath of the title. Gericault chose to depict all his figures at the center. Placed on a raft in the middle of the sea some are standing, some are seated and some others lie dead. The scene is less clear than David’s, those alive blended with the dead, all placed in an X shape, while the light enters from the left (Tansey and Kleiner 942).
When examining the history behind the creation of the two works and the subjects the two artists chose to depict, it becomes clear that their respective creation had very different purposes. The Oath of the Horatii although originally a royal commission, soon became a symbol of the French Revolution. It is a history painting full of Neoclassical ideas. It depicts a story from Republican Rome. The Horatti brothers swear to die protecting Rome and the Republic against its enemies (Tansey and Kleiner, 918). The men disregard their female relatives who weep besides them. Instead, they display courage, patriotism and loyalty, all qualities much revered in France of the late 18th century (Tansey and Kleiner, 918). The message would be clear to the French population both before and after the Revolution, especially as the story narrated comes from Republican and not Imperial Rome.
The Raft of the Medusa on the other hand depicts an actual contemporary event from 1816 (Tansey and Kleiner, 941-942). The sinking of a ship carrying immigrants from Algeria in the west coast of Africa had as a result the death of most of its passengers, while the French government did little to save them (Tansey and Kleiner 941). The painting wants to narrate their story and present it to the rest of the world, appealing to the people’s emotions and even attempt to shock them. In order to fulfill this purpose the artist avoids identifying one or more men as the protagonists. Those who have managed to survive are presented battered by the power of the sea, one of them raising his arms to a distant ship that will eventually come to their rescue (Tansey and Kleiner 941). Authenticity seems to have been very important for Gericault and he spent a great amount of time looking into the actual events of the tragedy in order to achieve the best possible outcome (Tansey and Kleiner 942).
It is clear from the discussion above that the two works of art belong to two distinct styles that have been shaped by the periods in which they were created. The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David is a Neoclassical painting that served a didactic purpose in the pre-revolution years in France. The Raft of the Medusa is a Romantic painting that appeals directly to the viewers’ emotions and discusses a contemporary event.
Gontar, C. "Neoclassicism". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2003. [online] available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/neoc_1/hd_neoc_1.htm
Galitz, K. C. "Romanticism". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2004. [online] available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/roma/hd_roma.htm
“Neoclassicism and Romanticism 1740-1850”. Berklee College of Music. ND [online] available at: http://classes.berklee.edu/llanday/spring02/tech/r&c.htm
“Oil Painting- Materials and Techniques”. Victoria and Albert Museum. ND [online] available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/o/oil-painting-materials-techniques/
Tansey, R. G. and F. S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.