Liberty Leading the People is one of Eugéne Delacroix’s most well known Romantic paintings and is often associated with the French Revolution of 1789, even though it was painted following the 1830 uprising known as the Trois Glorieuses (“Three Glorious Days”).
However, it is an enduring image of what we imagine a revolution to feel like: violent, ecstatic, and murderous.
Delacroix wrote to his nephew Charles Verninac: “Three days amid gunfire and bullets, as there was fighting all around. A simple stroller like myself ran the same risk of stopping a bullet as the impromptu heroes who advanced on the enemy with pieces of iron fixed to broom handles.”
By the time Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People in the autumn of 1830 he was already an acknowledged leader of the Romantic school in French painting.
He took inspiration from Rubens and other painters from the Venetian Renaissance, with an emphasis on colour and movement rather than clarity of outline and carefully modelled form. His central themes were characterised by dramatic and romantic content, which led him to travel to North Africa in search of the exotic. A friend and supporter of Théodore Géricault, Delacroix was also inspired by Byron, with whom he shared a strong identification with the “forces of the sublime” of nature in violent action.
The painting was first exhibited at the official Salon of May 1831. In a letter to his brother, he wrote: “My bad mood is vanishing thanks to hard work. I’ve embarked on a modern subject—a barricade. And if I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her“.
In the painting, the allegory of Liberty is personified by a young woman of the people wearing the Phrygian cap (liberty cap) of the earlier Revolution, her curls escaping onto her neck.
With her dress falling down to expose her breasts, Liberty holds up the tricolour, the flag of liberty (and now the French national flag) in a powerful arm. In her other hand is a rifle with a fixed bayonet. She stands noble and resolute, her body illuminated on the right, cutting a distinct figure among the men as she turns her head to spur them on to final victory. The mound of corpses acts as a kind of pedestal from which she strides barefoot out of the picture frame and into the space of the viewer.
Two Parisian urchins have joined the fight: the one on the left wide-eyed under his light infantry cap; the more famous figure to the right of Liberty is Gavroche, a symbol of youthful revolt against injustice and sacrifice for a noble cause. He sports the black velvet beret worn by students as a symbol of rebellion, and advances right foot forward, brandishing cavalry pistols with one arm raised, a war cry on his lips.
The fighter who carries an infantry sabre is recognisably a factory worker with his apron and sailor trousers.
The kneeling figure with the top hat of a bourgeois or fashionable urbanite (a poet or an artist, perhaps even Delacroix himself?) who wears loose-fitting trousers and an artisan’s red flannel belt, clutches a double-barrelled hunting gun as if he has never touched a firearm before.
The wounded man raising himself up at the sight of Liberty with his knotted scarf, peasant’s smock and red flannel belt suggest the temporary workers of Paris. The blue jacket, red belt, and white shirt echo the colours of the flag.
What these figures, who represent the various Parisian social classes, have in common is the fierceness and determination in their eyes.
The towers of Notre Dame which can be seen in the distance represent liberty and Romanticism—as they did for writer Victor Hugo—and situate the action in Paris.
Delacroix’s use of expressive brushstrokes and his study of the optical effects of colour shaped the work of the Post Impressionists. The composition is given unity by his skilful use of colour; the blue, white, and red elements have counterpoints; the white of the parallel straps across the fighters’ shoulders echoes that of the gaiters and of the shirt on the corpse to the left, while the grey tonality enhances the red of the flag.
This work was the inspiration for New York’s Statue of Liberty, which was given to the United States by the French in 1886.
This is an excerpt from my online art appreciation program, Introduction to Modern European Art, http://www.modernartapprecistion.com