Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii
Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii

Charlie Casely-Hayford, fashion designer, on Jacques-Louis David’s painting, The Oath of the Horatii.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

CCH It’s a painting I first learned about at the Courtauld Instiute. I went to St Martin’s as well and I’ve always been interested in the contrast between the two worlds. So at the Courtauld I studied classicism and neo-classicism. Then at St Martin’s I studied illustration. My dad also studied history of art and brought me up to understand what came before in order to create something new. I suppose this particular painting struck a chord because I work in a family business and everything relies on the relationship we have.

GB So the meaning is very personal for you.

CCH Yes, it’s a painting about a father and his sons and a sense of honour, allegiance and duty and exchange between them. Three brothers from the Horatii family are going off to fight three brothers from the Curatii family, to put an end to a war between their two cities. This is the moment when the Horatii brothers salute their father before the fight. That’s how I connected to this. At the time when it was painted it was such a modern image, being so stripped back and direct compared to the Rococo style, which is something I can relate to in my design aesthetic.  I studied history of art because I knew I’d be going into the fashion world and I wanted to train my mind and my eye creatively, so I looked at many different versions of ideals of beauty. This period really appealed to me.

GB This was a painting that really defined its time. It’s the most famous pre-revolutionary French neo-classical painting.

CCH I think there’s such a sense of clarity in Courbet and David, in what they were trying to convey. And that’s something I try to achieve in my own work.

GB Do you think that this reaction against the decadence of Rococo art is something you feel is relevant to this moment in time too?

CCH Yes, even in terms of where we are in the fashion industry. Even in the last few seasons there’s been a dramatic shift in the whole aesthetic.

GB How would you describe that?

CCH I think now we’re entering a phase where everything is very graphic and direct in terms of what menswear designers are conveying on the catwalk. I think that has a lot to do with the power of the internet. I suppose a lot of people’s contact with clothes now is through a screen, rather than actually touching the clothes, so what you’re seeing on the screen is what you get. Something more stripped down.

GB Are you aware of the classical story behind the David painting?

CH Yes, there’s a real sense of gravitas and permanence in the image. But also there’s this sense of immediacy because he’s captured this intense moment before the action.

GB So is it tinged with sadness because one surviving brother then goes home and kills his sister?

CCH Yes the sad side of what’s happening between these warring families is presented to us – but in the background through the weeping women. The positioning of people in the image is very important to the composition.

GB Do you think David was aiming for beauty as well as this strong message?

CCH There’s definitely an ideal there but I think it’s a different ideal of beauty from those who came before him. The way he used iconography was very powerful and the raised hands of the men became a symbol of the revolution.

GB And quite prescient in the way that power overreached itself.

CCH I suppose that makes a great artist, that way of seeing what’s going on around you and capturing things that other people maybe didn’t see until the time had passed. In a way, that’s the role of the designer too.

GB So what elements of this do you think you take to your own work.

CCH I don’t think minimalism is the right word, but certainly a reduction and a geometry. The way he uses colour even in the clothing, was very striking in its day. The craftsmanship is also important to me, that reflects the dedication that I have to put into my family business.  I suppose that even in my own demeanour I’m quite calm and a man of few words, so I relate to the kind of noble calm of the male figures.

GB Do you think that this painting has a universal beauty?

CCH Ideally I’d like to think so, but looking at it without any context I suppose people wouldn’t see what I see. But I think art is about being engaged with what’s going on while still being a passive observer.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

CCH  When I find something beautiful I tend to have quite a strong sense of detachment from it because it creates an imbalance for me. Like a teacher, pupil relationship I’ll find myself looking up at it rather than being on the same level. When I sense that distance I know I’ve seen beauty.

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