David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784
David used a linear painting style in which forms are defined by sharp edges. Brushstrokes are not visible,
and it almost seems like we are looking at statues. David’s composition is carefully balanced and austere.
The three main figural groups are set before a simple three-arched arcade; the forms are set parallel to the
picture plane, which adds to the sense of order in the painting. This large painting was a royal commission
made only a few years before the start of the French Revolution. It is a statement of unquestioned loyalty
that the king must have hoped would inspire loyalty in his subjects.
Ironically, David himself joined with the revolutionaries, and his manner of painting became associated with
their ideals. The Death of Marat is David’s tribute to one of the leaders of the French revolution, Jean-Paul
Marat. An exquisitely composed work, the painting shows Marat in his bath the moment after he was
stabbed by Charlotte Corday. Marat’s left hand has not yet released the letter announcing her arrival, his
right hand still holding his writing pen. His pose quotes Michelangelo’s Pietà, drawing a clear parallel
between the martyred Marat and Christ. The orderly repetition of rectangles set against the dark, empty
background gives this painting a moving sense of stillness and monumentality.