Paris Récit: 'The Oath of the Horatii'

‘So, what can you see in this painting?’

The guide at the Louvre bends her body at a slight incline to speak to the primary-school children sitting on the floor in disordered rows in front of her. My son is one of the group; we’re visiting the Louvre as part of a school excursion.   

‘The men are standing up straight, the ladies are sitting in the corner,’ one child says.

‘What about the colours?’

‘The ladies are in darker colours to show they are sad. The men are wearing brighter colours – red, because they are going off to fight a war.’

We are sitting in front of Jacques-Louis David’s ‘The Oath of the Horatii’ (Le serment les Horaces) painted five years before the Revolution in 1784, which is part of the collection on display at the Louvre.

This is one of those moments when Paris in all its wonder opens itself up to me. My son is blasé, they have studied these masterpieces at his public school before coming to the museum. He has memorised an extract from Corneille’s 1640 play, Horace – his sweet little mouth changing shape, as he pronounces ‘Albe, Albe …’ (stressing the final vowel to allow for the essential poetry of the text). I studied the same paintings in my final year of secondary school, poring over the slides in another hemisphere, in another country where sudden dust storms coloured the sky red or orange in the middle of summer (sometimes).

In the painting, the three brothers express their loyalty and solidarity, with Rome before battle, wholly supported by their father. These are men willing to lay down their lives out of patriotic duty. With their resolute gaze and taut, outstretched limbs, they are citadels of patriotism. They are symbols of the highest virtues of Rome. Their clarity of purpose, mirrored by David’s simple yet powerful use of tonal contrasts, lends the painting, and its message about the nobility of patriotic sacrifice, an electric intensity. This is all in contrast to the tender-hearted women who lie weeping and mourning, awaiting the results of the fighting.

'The mother and sisters are shown clothed in silken garments seemingly melting into tender expressions of sorrow,' a description of the painting continues in the internet's free encyclopaedia. David invented this moment, when three men took their swords and vowed to defend Rome, to defend their beloved Republic, against their rivals from Alba Longa.     

‘What do you think about the building?’

‘In the background, there are arches. I think it’s a big house like in the old days, in Roman times,’ one child says.

According to one critic, the painting represents the virtue of patriotism that included self-sacrifice for one's country, while also reflecting the political tensions in pre-revolutionary France. It was a huge success after its public exhibition and led to David being allowed to study at the Louvrewhich was considered to be a great honour for artists in this period.  

On Friday morning, as I was collecting my phone from a repair shop in my neighbourhood, a man was shot by soldiers after lunging at police and soldiers guarding the entrance to the underground shopping complex at the Louvre. He was armed with a machete, and apparently called out Allahu Akbar.

‘Is he French?’ I asked the man who was organising the paperwork for me to sign so I could take the phone with me.

‘Probably.’

‘This is unbelievable, it’s going to affect the political scene here so much, again - just before the election.’

‘Not just that,' the man replied, 'But tourism, as well. I mean, the Louvre.’