Corneille’s «Horace» and David’s «Oath of the Horatii»

A Chapter in the Politics of Gender in Art

by Madelyn Gutwirth (Author)
©2011 Monographs XVI, 102 Pages


This book views Jacques-Louis David’s pre-Revolutionary Oath of the Horatii as the realization of political and cultural gender struggle and goes back to antiquity and to Pierre Corneille’s seventeenth-century play Horace to trace major antecedents of David’s work. The play begins with Livy’s account of gender strife in the Roman family of the Horatians. As Horace returns from battle against Alba, he is bitterly reproached by his sister Camille for slaying her Alban fiancé. Outraged, Horace kills her and is subsequently tried by the Roman state and freed. Corneille’s 1640 version of the tale, Horace, appeared during the regency of Queen Anne of Austria, a time that favored the emergence of proto-feminist literature. Written in this atmosphere, Camille plays a powerful role: she thunderously denounces war and state power. Alas, this pro-woman ambiance did not last.
As eighteenth-century France’s sense of moral crisis rose, gender relations became more embattled. The greater presence of women in society evoked a reaction toward gender separation, as medical theorists circumscribed women’s «nature» within sexual and maternal roles. As hysteria and the vapors became common female afflictions, Enlightenment philosophes puzzled over the paradox of women’s condition.
The conflict over «effeminate» rococo and «masculine» neo-classical art illustrates these tensions. David’s milieu embraced a severer Roman, less feminocentric aesthetic. His preparatory sketches for The Oath exhibit hesitation as to how to frame his version of the story, but his final work diminishes women’s stature, not only in the myth, but for the revolutionary generation’s conceptualization of the republic. The work’s huge impact reinforced a gender history in which women’s place in the modern state was decisively relegated to its margins.


XVI, 102
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2012 (February)
History Criticism Art History Gender Women's Studies Myth literture
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2011. XVI, 102 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Madelyn Gutwirth (Author)

Madelyn Gutwirth, Professor Emerita of French and Women’s Studies at West Chester University, received her BA from Brooklyn College and her MA and her PhD from Bryn Mawr College. She is author of Madame de Staël, Novelist: The Emergence of the Artist as Woman (1978) and co-editor (with Avriel Goldberger and Karyna Szmurlo) of Germaine de Staël: Crossing the Borders (1991). Her Twilight of the Goddesses: Women and Representation in the French Revolutionary Era (1992) was awarded Honorable Mention in competition for the Louis Gottschalk Prize by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in 1993. She has been a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Humanities Center.


Title: Corneille’s «Horace» and David’s «Oath of the Horatii»