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

A Chapter in the Politics of Gender in Art


Madelyn Gutwirth

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.


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I Horace and the War of the Sexes 1


y i • Hor aCe and tHe War oF tHe se xes Livy, for one, (I, 24–25) tells us the story..1 In Rome’s early days as a tiny state under King Tullus’s reign, its fragile supremacy was contested by the rival nation of Alba. Each state boasted a trio of brothers—the Horatii and the Curiatii—roughly equal in eminence as warriors. Their monarchs agreed that rather than hazard all-out combat, these champions should fight each other, and the defeated nation would peaceably submit to the victorious one. Both camps solemnly swore allegiance to these conditions. In the heated battle that ensued, two of the Romans succumbed, while all three Curiatii were wounded. The Albans, foreseeing a Roman defeat, were jubi- lant. But Rome’s sole remaining combatant, Horatius, cleverly took flight so as to entrap each of the wounded Curiatii into single combat. He slew first one, then another of these brothers and finally, still himself untouched, threw himself upon the wounded third. Thrusting his sword into his neck, thus despoiling his body, he then claimed victory for Rome. As Horatius marched homeward, boastfully displaying his triple spoils includ- ing the garments of the fallen, he encountered his sister Camilla outside the Capene 1 Although Dionysius of Helicarnassus, Florus, and Plutarch also relate the tale, it will be Livy’s account that is referred to here. interior_gutwirth.indd 1 7/18/11 8:33 PM 2 Corneille’s Horace and David’s Oath of the Horatii Gate. (Livy, I 26) When she saw him wearing...

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