Duty Walks a Straight Line

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii,1784, oil on canvas

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784, oil on canvas

Today we are going to focus specifically on form and its components. Among the many components of an artist’s formal toolbox, line is one of the most subtle yet versatile characteristics that can define a work of art. From the confusion of indiscernible lines to the purity of line by itself and every compromise in between, lines both obvious and unseen can really shape the mood of a piece and manipulate the way you look at a work (read more information here).

A powerful example of the importance of line can be seen in Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii When you first look at this painting, you are probably impressed by the rigidity of the warriors, the sharpness of their swords, and the impassive strength of the stone arches behind them. You can feel the resolution, determination, and passion in their taut muscles and uplifted faces, focusing on an unseen goal, a great cause that they are prepared to die for. A lot of these emotions are based on symmetry and careful arrangements of the figures using strong, well-defined lines:

1) The hilts of the swords lie directly in the center of the painting, forming a strong, rigid, vertical axis towards which many elements of the painting converge, creating a sense of order and unity (see schematic here).

2) The limbs and weapons of the men create a series of intersecting parallel and perpendicular lines that echo one another. The father’s arm reaching towards the swords is mirrored by the sons’, whose arms rise from a steady horizontal line gradually up to meet the verticality of the swords in an “earth-meets-heaven” arrangement.

3) Finally, their spread legs form static, stabilizing triangles mirrored across the central axis. Their bodies are erect, with straight backs and tense muscles. The soldiers literally stand their ground and will not be moved.

4) The simple, well-defined architecture, with perfectly ordered tiles and thick, heavy columns, is constructed in perfectly symmetrical and repeating sections that logically frame the figures. The theme of weight can suggest moral righteousness in addition to physical prowess.

At the same time, to the right of the men you see a heap of women, hunched over and listless, their bodies curled up with grief and desolation. The women are represented as the antithesis of the men. Instead of vertical and horizontal lines, which imply strength and stability, the ladies lean on each other with curving backs and bowed heads.

The emotional language of this painting is relatively clear, even if the actual story is unfamiliar: as the family’s sons bravely prepare to go to war to fulfill their duties, their mother, sisters, and wives are sick with worry and fear their impending death. In fact, this painting depicts the Horatii family of Rome preparing to fight the Curaitii family of Alba Longa to settle a war between the two cities. Only one of the three brothers survives, but their sacrifice is destined to protect Rome, placing duty to their nation above their personal lives and their family. The calculated use of lines serves as a visual metaphor for this sense of civic responsibility.

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3 thoughts on “Duty Walks a Straight Line

  1. Pingback: Colorful Flights of Fancy | The Art of Looking

  2. Pingback: Cracking the Code: A Series | The Art of Looking

  3. Pingback: A Balanced Judgment | The Art of Looking

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