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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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III Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii 61


y i i i · Jacques-Louis DaviD’s OatH Of tHe HOr atii the Politics of art The campaign against Rococo art was anything but frivolous. For Thomas Crow, the year 1747 is the date after which “key terms like ‘public,’ ‘virtue,’ and ‘nobility’” became “invested” with “charged, partisan meanings.”1 In his account, it would be in public disputes over the Salon of that year that opposition to the artistic estab- lishment starts to cristallize, as parlementaire partisans who were beginning to contest monarchical preeminence joined forces with art connoisseurs. “The ‘new Romans,’ they alone were proper defenders of justice and law, possessed of an ele- vated sense of their heritage, capable of driving out the corruptions of courtiers and bankers.”2 The two factions would close ranks to challenge the Court entou- rage’s domination of what they felt to be a degeneration of taste, hence of aesthetic and ethical values. The parlementaires had made possible an equation between nobility of artistic aspiration and the public good. This coalition “served the social ambitions of the anti-Rococo critics, for it endowed their activities with a doubly 1 Thomas E. Crow. Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris. New Haven:Yale UP, 1985. 119. 2 Madelyn Gutwirth. Twilight. Chapter I, “Gendered Rococo,” 19. interior_gutwirth.indd 61 7/18/11 8:33 PM 62 Corneille’s Horace and David’s Oath of the Horatii ennobled character: their advocacy served both a patriotic nation and the threat- ened noble genre of painting.” (Painters, 131) La Font...

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