Modern history


On an August afternoon in 1785 a correspondent for the Journal de Paris saw a young man in his mid-twenties addressing a crowd on a platform in front of the Châtelet. As a newly appointed advocate-general of the Parlement, Hérault de Séchelles was for the first time exercising his right to speak in this manner and he warmed to his subject. It was one calculated to wring the hearts of les coeurs sensibles. A self-made man who came from a poor family, it seems, had wished to express his gratitude for his good fortune by making a donation to the poor of the parish of Saint-Sulpice. Inadvertently, he had departed from the prescribed official forms in which such donations could be made and the tribunal of the Châtelet as a result had declared them invalid. Héraul thad taken on the task of pressing the donor’s claims and harangued the crowd on the absurdity of the annulment. But the subject of his speech was less important than its spoken form. For it was apparent to the journalist, as to the crowd, that this was an exhibition of public oratory in which the young speaker was testing his powers to affect a spontaneously gathered audience.

According to this same account, published in the newspaper, Hérault’s debut as a public speaker was a triumph, all the more impressive for avoiding the flashy excesses of the stage (though in fact this future Jacobin was already taking lessons from the actress Mlle Clairon):

The speech of the young Magistrate had no pretensions to eloquence; his style was calm and tranquil like that of the law itself: he had something of the control of the passions so necessary to the intelligence if it is to discover the truth. Conviction and enlightenment emerged gently and by degrees from his words… with none of those syllogisms that have nothing to do with reason… all those who heard this young Magistrate speak could appreciate the wisdom with which the tone of his speech advanced the nature of his cause.

Even if Hérault’s chosen manner was that of the grave man of the law, the entire performance was no less theatrically calculated for that. When he had finished, loud applause broke out among the crowd, to which he responded with self-deprecation, waving the acclaim on to the senior magistrates who had preceded him. This was stagecraft of a very high order and for which Hérault would become justly famous in the Convention and even, at last, on the scaffold before his beheading with his comrade Danton. In 1785 he seemed, even to the hard-boiled reporter from the Journal, to ooze sincerity. “Never has talent shown so much graciousness as when he [Hérault] effaced himself so as to turn his own renown to other[s’] talents.” One thinks of Pilâtre in the theater of Lyon, taking the laurels from his brow and placing them on the crown of Montgolfier: the new, Roman heroics.

After austerity and modesty came Sensibility. Descending from the dais, Hérault was embraced by his senior colleagues of the robe, including the famous orator Gerbier, whom he publicly addressed as his professional “Father.” “Never,” said the writer, had his soul “been so moved as by this scene.”

Although he shrewdly affected the air of a novice in the art of legal oratory, Hérault was, at the age of twenty-six, already something of a master. With so many of the most eloquent and ambitious radicals of this period he shared an aristocratic background. Like Lafayette he was an orphan of the Battle of Minden, where his father, a cavalry colonel, had charged the British lines in the futile gesture that had cut down the flower of the French military aristocracy, then died of his wounds at Cassel, in the year of Hérault’s birth. His grandfather had been a school-fellow of Voltaire’s and a lieutenant of police in Paris, where he endeavored to suppress public bull-baiting and organize ordure removal from the city’s filthy streets. From this tradition of patriotism and public service the young Hérault de Séchelles, blessed with precocious talent, decided, self-consciously, “to embrace the toga rather than the sword.” Educated by the Oratorians and promoted by his relatives he was appointed avocat du roi in the Parlement at the astonishing age of nineteen. Learning perhaps from one of the new standard works on legal rhetoric – Pierre-Louis Gin’s The Eloquence of the Bar (1768), for example – he made a reputation by specializing in the defense of those who could plausibly be represented as “victims of oppression.” His cases, for example, included the defense of a wife, separated from her husband, whom the Parlement of Rennes had condemned to the cloister at the husband’s request, and that of an illegitimate girl whose father wanted to seize property bequeathed by her mother.

In 1779 Hérault extended his rhetorical range by writing for a competition of the Academy, a eulogy of the Abbé Suger, the great twelfth-century creator of Saint-Denis. Still in his early twenties, in his intellectual enthusiasm he rebounded from Rousseau (predictably) and, less predictably, the natural historian Buffon. In 1783 he embarked on a journey of homage to Zurich with his aristocratic friend Michel Lepeletier (from another of the great Parlementaire clans) to see the great man. Sources close to Buffon insist that, stricken with acute pain from gallstones, the scientist was unable to see Hérault and Lepeletier. But this did not prevent the former from putting about, indeed publishing, a detailed account of their meeting. In this version Buffon was cast as the venerable sage, in whom the simplicity of nature had been preserved, conferring his benediction on the ardent young acolyte. Dressed in a yellow robe with white stripes and blue flowers:

He came to greet me majestically, opening his two arms… and said, “I regard you as an old friend since you have desired to see me.” I looked upon a fine countenance, noble and calm. Despite his seventy-eight years, one would have said he was but sixty and what was more singular was that, having just endured sixteen nights without shutting his eyes and in unconscionable suffering which still persisted, he was still fresh as a child and tranquil as though in perfect health.

Skilled at self-promotion, Hérault was a powerful (and strikingly handsome) young orator, and his reputation as such reached the Queen. He was, after all, officially one of the “King’s men” (appointed by the government) in the Parlement. She received him at court and was evidently so smitten by his dashing self-confidence that she had a scarf especially embroidered as a present. Hérault relished showing off this favor and was said to wear it throughout his years as a militant Jacobin right up to the day when the guillotine struck off his own head. In 1786, a year after the performance at the Châtelet, he was given the honor of opening the so-called “harangues” following the Parlement of Paris’s return for the new session. This was a great public occasion, and in theGazette des Tribuneaux a fellow lawyer reported that “his speech was awaited with great impatience by the numerous audience. It was filled with the forms and the beauty that distinguished the orators of the ancient Republics… he was interrupted by frequent bursts of applause and it was noticeable that the advocates especially were seized with the enthusiasm that can arouse men and through which they discover their own strengths and the secret of their power.”

Hérault’s spectacular early career, then, may have been helped on its way by birth, education and connections. But it was largely made by the systematic exploitation of eloquence, as his Reflections on Declamation acknowledged. He was able to use his oratorical skills to climb within the career ladder of the old regime and yet strike out as a public figure with a reputation for integrity and independence. The idea of using the bar as a kind of generalized public tribune, though, had limits, which when severely tested could expel, rather than absorb, the radical. Much depended on the line taken by the orator. Hérault and his colleague Target, who would become a revolutionary and one of the authors of the constitution of 1791, could be depended on to take the side of the Parlements in most disputes with the crown. It was not until late 1788 that they parted company with the court over the form and composition of the Estates-General. But the man who in the 1760s had done more than anyone else to invent the concept and practice of a bar designed to appeal directly to the public – Simon Linguet – had done so as part of a campaign against the Parlements.

Linguet was nothing short of a phenomenon in the public life of the old regime. A thorn in the side of virtually all its governing institutions, he developed a manner of speech and writing that exactly anticipated the revolutionary manner of waspish incrimination and passionate anger. Until fairly recently Linguet has been written off as, at best, an eccentric curiosity, too quirky to have had any serious influence on the direction of old-regime politics. A splendid biography by Darline Gay Levy has done the most to rescue him from this obscurity and it is becoming rapidly apparent that there were almost no corners of the political world of France in this period that were untouched by his talent and reputation. As a precocious trial lawyer in the 1760s he won fame and notoriety for embracing a series of spectacular causes célèbres, including the case of the Chevalier de La Barre, accused of mutilating a crucifix and condemned to have his tongue cut out, head struck off and body and head burned separately at the stake. Disbarred for systematically using the bar to wage war against the courts and magistrates, Linguet turned to journalism, where his gifts for stinging and powerful attack were quite as impressive as in his speech. Two aspects of his writing, however, anticipated revolutionary discourse more directly than anything else: his concern with confronting the rhetoric of “Liberty” with issues of hunger, property and subsistence; and the angry Memoirs of the Bastille, written in 1783 after a two-year sentence that resulted from a lettre de cachet.In huge demand, Linguet’s Memoirs did more than anything to create a mythic symbol of old-regime despotism that concentrated in itself all the rage, spleen and desperation accumulating in the late 1780s.

Linguet was really the inventor of the lawyer as public advocate, and so it was he who made it possible for a subsequent generation to slide easily from courtroom harangues to political debates. His History of… the Century of Alexander, published in 1762, had already looked back to ancient Greece for the ideal of the lawyer-orator able to articulate for the public “the springs of the human heart.” By contrast, modern states had deprived the public tribune of any important role in judicial proceedings, enclosing them either in secrecy or trapping them within formalistic legal conventions. It was for the gifted orator to uncloak these mystifications by exposing them directly to the censure of the people.

And Linguet proceeded in his trial cases to do just that, using the crowds of spectators who came to hear him speak in the Grand’ Chambre of the Parlement exactly like a theater audience, rousing them to applaud, cheer and whistle, cry and stamp their feet. He made sure that he had cases (few of which he won) that would connect directly with issues of Sensibility. In the La Barre case he pulled out all the emotional stops, creating an aural tableau worthy of Greuze. Criticizing the confessional testimony of a young companion of La Barre’s as the product of brutal intimidation, he painted a word portrait of “this unfortunate child, prostrate at the feet of the judge…” In addition to the La Barre case, he defended the Protestant wife of the Vicomte de Bombelles, who had been deserted by her husband for a Catholic woman and whose children had been removed to Catholic custody. Linguet lost the case but won public acclaim. His tactics of playing to the gallery were deeply shocking to the magistracy. A royal judge instructed young lawyers not to “take him [Linguet] for a model… whether it be his dangerous art of covering everything with sarcasm… or… in the unbridled audacity of formulating independent apostrophes to the public and the attempt to use them as a rampart to force the judges’ vote.”

Even this disruptive public style might have been acceptable had Linguet been more politically compliant. But instead of expressing solidarity with the courts in their conflicts with the crown, his Theory of Civil Laws actually endorsed “Oriental Despotism” as the best of all systems since it alone could guarantee the protection of the people from material deprivation. Staking out a position so wildly reactionary that it became, in effect, radical, he defended slavery as a social system more likely to guarantee the reciprocities of obligation and subsistence than would the “freedoms” of a market in labor. Moreover, Linguet attacked the personal credentials and competence of judges (many of whose legal education left much to be desired since they had bought their offices) to decide on important cases. In the name of royal justice and the protection of the poor, then, Linguet mounted a direct attack on the entire system of legal nobility. Since, at the same time, he had launched an equally violent attack on the philosophes as another self-perpetuating elite, he managed to assemble a formidable coalition of enemies. In 1775 he became his own client in a disbarral proceeding which he lost, but only after five hundred of his supporters from the gallery rushed the Grand’ Chambre waving sticks and knives. “I can succumb as Socrates,” announced the tribune, defeated but unbowed, in what by all accounts was a reedy, piping alto, “but I do not want my Anituses to rest unpunished. You allege that you are judging me. I agree to all this but I will place between you and me this Supreme Judge to which the most absolute tribunals are subordinated: public opinion.”

Self-consciously casting himself as the Rousseau of the courts – persecuted, isolated and ostracized, unable to suppress the truths that the heart dictated to the lips – Linguet became an improbable hero to a whole generation of young writers and lawyers eager to recast themselves in the role of Greco-Roman Tribune. He was the first person sought out by Jacques-Pierre Brissot when the latter arrived in Paris from the provinces. Brissot would also attempt to use a legal career to make audible what had been written argument. And like his role-model, he too became impatient with the byzantine processes by which he could penetrate the order of barristers. Wearying of his apprenticeship he campaigned for a reborn version of what he imagined was the Roman republican bar. In such a new order of lawyers, advocates would be able to plead directly at a public tribune before the assembled people, be free of all hierarchical guild restrictions, unbridled by any kind of censorship of opinions; and judges would be appointed by the state purely on the basis of unimpeachable integrity and eloquence. Brissot’s mythical vision of virtuous advocacy was drawn directly from Linguet’s nostalgia for an antiquity where there had been “inconceivable assemblies of the entire nation where a single man could harangue twenty thousand…”

Linguet and his admirers privileged the spoken over the printed word because they believed it somehow to be less capable of alienation. The voice, in this sense, was held to be “indivisible” from the man, whereas the pamphlet or the treatise could be more easily censored, suppressed or amended by authority. Supposedly more spontaneous in its expression, the oratorical voice more faithfully announced the particular qualities of the individual and so was less open to the sophistries, concealments and artifices that could be brought to the printed page. When he went to England in the 1770s, Linguet was dismayed to discover how ponderous, formulaic and uninspired speeches in Parliament were, and he distinguished them sharply from the kind of neo-Roman declamation that would be the preaching voice of public virtue.

And it was this superior virtue that came to be prized so highly by the revolutionaries. Indeed, public utterance in different forums – the revolutionary club, the convention, even the military camp – would assume a strategic importance. At several critical moments, the ability to sway audiences, large or confined, made the difference between life and death, triumph and disaster. The great cascades of rhetoric pouring from the mouths of revolutionary orators so appealed to the Romantic historians of the nineteenth century, who admired its theatrical flamboyance, that they tried to reproduce these speeches as set pieces of their narratives. And that in turn has led modern accounts, until quite recently, to downplay somewhat the effect of spoken rhetoric on allegiance. But Mirabeau’s famous retorts to royal intervention in the Estates-General; Desmoulins’ inflammatory speech atop a table in the Palais-Royal on July 12, 1789; Saint-Just’s rousing rhetoric before the Army of the Sambre-et-Meuse all played a vital part in replacing an inchoate wash of fear and anger with a sense of brotherly solidarity. In this sense it does not seem too much to say that it was oratory that created “The People,” not vice versa. Conversely, failure to be heard could be a death sentence. Robespierre made sure that Danton’s booming baritone would not sabotage his trial by isolating him from a big public audience. But it was the collapse of Robespierre’s own eloquence before the Convention that drowned out his speech and ensured his own overthrow on the ninth of Thermidor.

Public diction, then, was public power. And there were sources of speech training, other than the bar, to enrich its elocution. Hérault, for example, went to the theater to polish his timing and inflection. Tutored by Mlle Clairon, he tried to imitate a specific style in the classical theater: that of the actors Molé and de Larive, famous for their grave portrayal of patriarchal heroes. A striking number of other revolutionaries had direct and professional connections with the theater – Collot d’Herbois, Camille Desmoulins, the Chénier brothers, the sans-culotte militant Ronsin and many others. Philippe Fabre from the little Pyrenean town of Limoux turned into the more grandiosely named “Fabre d’Eglantine” after being awarded the golden briar rose (eglantine) as a prize in elo-quence by the Academy of Toulouse. And it was this that launched him on his nomadic career as a playwright, poet, songwriter, guitar player and traveling actor who ended up in Paris on the eve of the Revolution with a string of spectacular flops.

The pulpit sermon was another important form of rehearsal. In the later part of the eighteenth century the Church attempted to arrest the progress of secularization by launching evangelical preaching missions in both Paris and the provinces. They met with a good deal of success, and a number of the most forceful orators of the Revolution came from this ecclesiastical background. Claude Fauchet, the Bishop of Caen who preached the gospel of social equality at his “Social Circle” meetings in Notre Dame, was one such figure; the Abbé Grégoire, advancing the principles of toleration and equal rights for Jews, was another.

In the lay world there were many opportunities for public declamation outside the realm of politics. Academies required eulogies of both recently deceased luminaries and long-dead figures they wished to praise. Speeches of reception for members newly welcomed to the ranks performed the same function. And some notables in the Paris elite became famous for their rhetoric. Talleyrand’s friend Chamfort, for example, had won a prize in eloquence in 1769 from the Academy and was elected a member in 1781 largely on the strength of his rhetorical polish. Classical drama provided one model for the grave elocution favored in these performances, but a more likely source was the schoolroom Latin in which virtually all aspirants to public eloquence would have been steeped.

As the report on Hérault’s 1786 speech suggests, there was no higher praise for orators than to be compared with the figures from antiquity whom they sought to emulate. The French Revolution was obsessed with the model of the Roman Republic in particular, and it was Cicero’s speeches as well as oratory reported in the histories of Sallust, Livy and Plutarch to which it looked for inspiration. Camille Desmoulins, for example, quoted from Cicero no less than forty-three times during his relatively brief periods in the revolutionary assemblies, and Brissot quoted him by way of Plutarch ten times. The Abbé Boisgelin, who was to be a deputy of the clergy in 1789 and who published a work on antique eloquence ten years earlier, summed up the reputation of this paragon by claiming that “when Cicero spoke in the Senate, he was the father of his country [père de la patrie].” Boisgelin went on to complain of the absence of comparably serious rhetoric in his own time, because “there are no longer great subjects to treat.” Before very long this was to be remedied. But already those who consciously sought to revive the antique tradition of political oratory associated it (in Athens as well as republican Rome) with the practice of freedom. The “bar” thus became the “bar of the people,” or the “tribune,” as it came to be called in the revolutionary assemblies at which the voice of those seeking to persuade the representatives of the people could be fairly judged.

It was the active citizenship that was believed to have existed in certain periods of antiquity that the revolutionary generation sought to revive through the power of oratory. In all likelihood they had first encountered it at school, where it was the staple diet of curricula in many colleges. This was the case, for example, at the Collège Louis-le-Grand, where Robespierre was one of many scholarship boys – some of whom came from even more modest backgrounds in trade, shopkeeping and the skilled artisanal crafts. Camille Desmoulins recollected that at the same school teachers like the Abbé Royau told their pupils to admire the simplicity, frugality, austerity, courage and patriotism of the heroes of the Roman Republic. And it was in college that students were required to model speeches on Cicero’s precise construction using, successively, exordium, narration, confirmation, refutation and peroration. There too they would have been introduced to the ornaments of the rhetoric: metaphor, trope, exclamation and interrogation – all of which were much on exhibition in revolutionary utterance.

There was no doubt that in the heroes of republican antiquity, the revolutionary generation found stirring role-models – and at the same time, that admiration sharpened their view that the stereotypes of the age in which they lived corresponded to the worst excesses of gilded corruption decried in the Roman histories. They read, for example, in Sallust’s Conspiracy of the Catilines that after the defeat of Carthage “virtue began to lose its lustre… as the result of riches, luxury and greed.” By contrast, in the golden age of the Republic

good morals were cultivated at home and in the field… justice and probity prevailed among them thanks not so much to laws as to nature. Quarrels, discord and strife were reserved for their enemies; citizens contended with each other only in merit. They were lavish in offerings to the gods, frugal at home and loyal to their friends…

That this view of an exemplary relationship between private morals and public virtues sounded like Rousseau did nothing to discourage it as a model. Equally, Cicero’s designation of homines novi – new men – as those who rose by virtue of their sound civism and eloquence provided the generation of the 1780s with their own collective badge of merit.

The result was to create a powerful bond of identification between ancient and modern republicans. When she was nine, Manon Philipon carried a copy of Plutarch to church with her, and recalled that “it was from that moment that I date the impressions and ideas that were to make me a republican.” Reading the history “inspired in me a veritable enthusiasm for public virtues and for liberty.” Some indeed were so carried away that they found it difficult if not impossible to be reconciled to the present. Mercier, who had taught at college in his twenties, was another idolater of the ancients and after wallowing in the majesty of the Republic found it “painful to leave Rome and find oneself still a commoner of the rue Noyer.”

“Roman” patriotism (for it was much more rarely Athenian) shared some of the virtues of the cult of Sensibility, but in other respects it was differently accented. For one thing, it was less inclined to marinate in the lachrymose, but instead exalted stoical self-possession over emotional outpouring. It was, quite self-consciously, a “virile” or masculine culture: austere, muscular and inflexible, rather than tender, sensitive and compassionate. As a style of architecture and interior decoration neoclassicism worked with stripped-down and severe forms: capitals that were plain Doric rather than elaborately Corinthian or delicately Ionic. And the publication of Roman wall painting (by the future ultra-Jacobin Sylvain Maréchal among others) from Pompeii and Herculaneum popularized a relieflike formalism.

Some enthusiasts of antiquity managed to travel to its most famous sites to commune directly with its ghosts. Some even went as far afield as the Peloponnese, a few more to Sicily, Naples and the Campania. But French visitors tended to be fewer than their English counterparts on the Grand Tour. Mostly, it was the establishment of the Prix de Rome by the Royal Academy of Painting, and its school in the same city, that made it possible for aspiring French painters to drink at the fountainhead of classical culture. Louis XVI’s new director of arts (officially the Surintendant des Bâtiments), d’Angiviller, was particularly concerned to use the scholarships available in a more austerely meritocratic fashion than had been the case under his predecessor Marigny. And in the late 1770s he also launched a program to encourage a new generation of history painting expressly designed to inculcate the public virtues associated with republican Rome: patriotism, fortitude, integrity and frugality.

So the heroes that embodied these values were paraded in large format at the Salons: Junius Brutus, who had executed his own sons when they were convicted of involvement in a royalist plot; Mucius Scaevola, who held his hand in the fire to demonstrate his patriotic inflexibility; Horatio Cocles, who had defended the bridge single-handed against the Etrus-cans; Gaius Fabricius and Scipio, whose imperviousness to corruption had been eulogized in the histories. Added to them were exemplary deathbed scenes in which philosophers of unbending integrity – Socrates, Seneca and Cato – died by their own hand rather than truckle to dictators.

Many of these worthies were already a familiar feature of the official self-advertisement of other republican cultures. Brutus, Gaius and Scipio, for example, were all prominently featured in the sculpted and painted decorations of the Amsterdam Town Hall in the mid-seventeenth century. But as they appeared in the Salons of the late 1770s and 1780s – and especially in the paintings of Jacques-Louis David – they registered a new message with disturbing eloquence: the painted equivalent to the rhetoric of Linguet.

The most spectacular of all such painted manifestos was David’s Oath of the Horatii, which appeared – late, and oversize – in the Salon of 1785. A great deal has been written about this extraordinary painting, and the debate over its political implications or lack of them is by no means yet exhausted. That it was aggressively unorthodox and self-consciously broke with academic conventions (even those hallowed by neoclassicists like Poussin) is indisputable. That it used a deliberately purified and somber color language and disregarded the obligatory “pyramid” composition for a relieflike arrangement within a shallow box, with groups of figures abruptly separated into three disconnected arrangements, is also self-evident. What remains contentious is whether these dramatic alterations of form constituted in themselves some sort of radical vocabulary and were recognized as such by contemporaries. David painted his subject, after all, as a royal commission sponsored by d’Angiviller, and his entire career had been typical of the escalator of talent that moved him easily upwards to renown and fortune in the 1780s. Official organs like the Mercure de France as much as unofficial reviews like Métra’s Correspondance Secrète were agreed on the genius of the work. But as we have seen in the case of Beaumarchais and even Rousseau, it was quite possible for the court as well as the grandest of les Grands to endorse what in hindsight appear to be the most subversive messages.

What is not in doubt is that The Oath of the Horatii triggered an unprecedented uproar in the Salon itself and in critical circles in Paris. The Mercure rhapsodized that “the composition is the work of a new genius; it announces a brilliant and courageous imagination…” Part of its fame at least was due to the intense narrative interest of the story. Attacked by the Curiatii, the three sons of Horace had challenged three of their young counterparts in the enemy camp to mortal combat so as to spare their respective populations the devastation of general war. But the story is complicated by the fact that while one of the Horatii was married to a sister of the Curiatii, their own sister, Camilla, was betrothed to one of their enemies. The combat turned out to be so lethal that only one of the Roman brothers survives and when he returns to find his sister in mourning for her fiancé kills her in a patriotic rage.

The story of the Horatii, then, married the moral themes of domestic virtues exhibited in the Sensibility paintings of the 1760s and 1770s to the martial and patriotic epics of the next generation. And David had imagined a scene not anticipated in any of the predictable sources, including the most familiar one – Corneille’s tragedy Les Horaces. For the moment when the father swore his sons to patriotic sacrifice was one where the emotional sword was sharply double-edged. The stern masculine determination of the patriotism on the left and center of the painting is set off against the tender genre group on the right with grief-stricken women and innocently rendered children already shadowed by the impending tragedy. It was this stunning articulation between the heroic and the tragic that so roused many of the painting’s admirers, who didn’t hesitate to place it not only in the context of neoclassical rhetoric but also in that of Rousseau’s emotional candor. The report in the Journal de Paris was typical:

One must absolutely see [this painting] to understand how it merits so much admiration. I observed… a correct design… a style that is noble without being forced [clinquant], true and harmonious color… an effect that is sharp and clear and a composition full of energy, supporting an expression strong and terrible [i.e., on the faces of the central group] that contrasts with the prostration reigning in the group of women. In the end if I am to judge from the feeling of others as well as my own, one feels in seeing this painting a sentiment that exalts the soul and which, to use an expression of J.J. Rousseau, has something poignant about it that attracts one; all the attributes are so well observed that one believes oneself transported to the earliest days of the Roman Republic.

It would be premature to see in the painting (even if some critics did) an unequivocal prophecy of David’s later Jacobinism. Even if the doyens of the Academy (in particular the official First Painter to the King, Pierre) were made nervous by the unorthodoxy of the picture, there is no evidence that it lost David favor with d’Angiviller or even with the court, which offered him more commissions. If the outstretched arm of the Horatii was to become the standard manner of taking a revolutionary oath – as recorded in David’s later unfinished painting of the Tennis Court Oath of 1789 – it would be because the gesture had been appropriated by the Revolution. But it would be equally myopic not to notice that all the required ingredients for revolutionary rhetoric were spectacularly announced in this painting: patriotism, fraternity and martyrdom. And where, for an earlier generation of Salon-goers, public virtue had been born and nursed in the bosom of a tender family, it had now been weaned to an attitude of brutal defiance.

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