In 1784 Louis XVI commissioned from Jacques-Louis David a life-size depiction of the ancient Roman story of the Horatii family pledging to fight the Curiatii. That famous painting is now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. Toledo’s canvas is a reduced replica ordered from David by the high-ranking courtier Comte de Vaudreuil. It is close to the original, except that it includes a distaff with spun thread near the women’s feet. David’s pupil Anne-Louis Girodet (1767–1824) reportedly assisted in making this version.
In a composition inspired by classical relief sculpture, the three Horatii brothers of Rome swear an oath before their father. They vow to fight to the death against their three cousins, the Curiatii of Alba Longa, in order to settle a dispute between the two cities with minimum bloodshed. Their tense stances contrast with the fluid contours of the women, slumped in grief and resignation. Complicating the situation, the young men were married or betrothed to each other’s sisters. In the unrest leading up to the French Revolution of 1789, David’s powerful image exhorted restrained emotion, order, and the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the state.