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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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II Sorting Out Gender in the Age of Sensibility 29


y i i · sorting out gender in tHe age oF sensibilit y an alteration of Mentality? There is no lack of agreement that the final decades of the eighteenth-century mark a number of turning points in French culture and society, although there is scarcely any as to their meaning. Michel Vovelle warily approached the concept of a “collective pre-revolutionary sensibility” by first setting out some measurable alterations in behavior among the French. Although he does not allude to them expressly in this way, he certainly confirms that these changes occurred in domains central to gender history: contraception, illegitimacy, premarital conceptions and abandoned children.1 Awareness of these phenomena increases in this era, prompt- ing Vovelle to ask: ”Clearly something happened in France to change attitudes toward procreation. But when? And how?” (612) A palpable decline in community spirit breaks out, as gangs of youths abandon the static localities of their parents for rebelliousness and displacement to the towns.2 In this era of exacerbated sen- sibility probably intensified by such social upheaval, he theorizes, the effectiveness 1 Michel Vovelle. “Le tournant des mentalités en France 1750–1789: la ‘sensibilité’ pré-révo- lutionnaire.” Social History 5 (1977). 605–628. p. 611. 2 Pierre Carlet de Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne (1731–41) and Le Paysan parvenu, (1735) explore some of the vicissitudes of such uprootings. interior_gutwirth.indd 29 7/18/11 8:33 PM 30 Corneille’s Horace and David’s Oath of the Horatii of traditional constraints on sexual behavior weakens materially, even...

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