Painted just before the French Revolution, David's Oath of the Horatii radically challenged the long-dominant classicized rococo style by emphasizing the representation of psychological states through the entire body rather than through the face alone. In these revealing essays on David's modernity, Dorothy Johnson examines the aesthetic innovations and ongoing artistic metamorphosis that shaped a career attuned to intellectual as well as political change. Focusing on the painter's writings and on topics such as his life-long experimentation with corporality, his inquiry into the nature of representation, his reinterpretations of mythology, and his application of the theory and language of sculpture to his art, Johnson rejects oversimplified categorizations of David as a neoclassicist and positions him as an important link in the development of romanticism.
Given David's interaction with many of the public figures of his time, including Diderot, Marat, and Napoleon, this book highlights the intellectual content of his paintings throughout his career. Inquiries into the transformation of matter, the evolution of the species, the identification and exploration of the stages in the formation of the self, the psychology of myth, the biological model of the waxing and waning of civilizations, and the organicity of history all parallel and inform David's approach to the making of art and his view of himself as an artist in the continuum of history.