Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix, 1831
Liberty Leading the People (or Liberty) by Delacroix is one the world’s most recognised paintings.
It has inspired postage stamps, covers of books and even the designer of the Statute of Liberty. It comes from a painter associated with the establishment.
Liberty is a prime example of why and how famous paintings are best understood by exploring their political and social contexts.
The Bigger Picture
Liberty commemorates the July Revolution of 1830 in France (known as three glorious days), which toppled the Emperor Charles X, a generation or so after the French Revolution.
In the painting, Liberty leads the people over the bodies of the fallen. Stridently and encouragingly she holds up the tricolour of the French Revolution in one hand and brandishes a bayonet in the other, the dead being her pedestal, her plinth to declare the revolution – they are victorious.
Liberty is a two-dimensional painting. Delacroix uses linear perspective to give the effect of 3-dimensional space. He uses aerial perspective with the city in the back being smaller with the sky blue and grey.
The meaning of the image, the content, is the people wanting liberty, and the battle the people went through to gain freedom. Liberty leads the people. Delacroix uses these images to tell the story – looking at the painting you know that there is a victory, a triumph – even if you are not aware of the situation.
The allegory of Liberty personifies by a young woman of the people wearing the Phrygian cap, her curls escaping onto her neck. Vibrant, fiery, rebellious, and victorious, she evokes the Revolution of 1789, the sans-culotte, and popular sovereignty. In her raised right hand is the red, white, and blue flag, a symbol of the struggle that unfurls toward the light like a flame.
Liberty wears a yellow dress reminiscent of classic dress, held in at the waist by a belt whose ends float at her side. It has slipped below her breasts, revealing the underarm hair considered vulgar by classical artists who decreed that a goddess's skin should be smooth.
The romantic realism of her nudity recalls the ancient winged victories. Her Greek profile, straight nose, generous mouth, a delicate chin, and smouldering gaze are reminiscent of the woman who posed for Delacroix’s The Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834).
She stands noble and resolute; her body is illuminated on the right, cutting a distinctive figure among the men as she turns her head to spur them on to final victory. Her dark left side stands out against a plume of smoke. Her weight is on her bare left foot, visible below her dress.
She may be an allegory, but this is a real battle, and she is caught up in the heat of the moment. The infantry gun with a bayonet in her left hand gives her a contemporary look and certain credibility.
Two Parisian boys have spontaneously joined the fight: the one on the left clings to the cobblestones, wide-eyed under his light infantry cap; the most famous figure to the right of Liberty is Gavroche, a symbol of youthful revolt against injustice and sacrifice for a noble cause. He wears the black velvet beret (or faluche) popular with students, as a symbol of rebellion, and carries an overlarge cartridge pouch slung across his shoulder. He advances right foot forward, brandishing cavalry pistols with one arm raised, a war cry on his lips as he exhorts the insurgents to fight.
The fighter whose beret carries a white royalist cockade and liberal red ribbon and who carries an infantry sabre (1816 model), is recognisably a print worker with his apron and sailor trousers. The scarf holding his pistol in place on his belly evokes the Cholet handkerchief—a rallying sign for Royalist leader Charette and the Vendeans.
The kneeling figure with the top hat of a bourgeois or fashionable urbanite may be Delacroix himself, or one of his friends. He wears loose-fitting trousers and an artisan's red flannel belt and carries a double-barrelled hunting gun. The wounded man raising himself up at the sight of Liberty wears a knotted yellowish scarf, echoing the colour of the heroine's dress; his 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.
The images of hats play a crucial role in the painting. This seemingly minor detail conveys an important aspect of what is being communicated in Liberty Leading the People - except for the monarchy, all social classes participated in the revolt, as telegraphed by the hats worn by the fighters.
The factory worker with an uplifted sabre (on the left) sports the hat typical of his class; next to Liberty is a young man waving two pistols and wearing the black beret traditionally worn by university students. Top hats were worn at the time by all social classes, and cloth hats often worn by printers.
But Liberty herself steals the show. Not only is she a symbol of bravery, persistence, and leadership, but she reminds viewers that women played an indispensable role in the events of July 1830.
With a Greek profile and exposed breasts, she is reminis
cent of ancient statuary, an allegory of revolution set in a realistic battle scene. She, too, wears a hat; her Phrygian cap was a widely recognised symbol of liberty during the French Revolution. She grasps a musket in one hand and the new Tricolour in the other.
Liberty is very much in scale and proportion. The art is in proportion because of the relationship between the parts to each other. No figure is larger than any other figure. An example is a young man to the right of Liberty. He is not bigger than the older men to the left of Liberty. The figures are in scale because the figures are the standard or expected size. The shape (hands, arms, feet, torso, and head) is all in the right scale to the actual bodily parts of a person.
Delacroix’s spirit is fully involved in its implementation of Liberty Leading the People. He executes the work with the heroic poses of the people fighting for liberty, the outstretched figure of Liberty, the dead figures, and the attitudes of the people following Liberty. Delacroix has given this painting a sense of full participation; no one is passive in the painting. This work has been called the first overtly political work of modern art.
Shown at the Salon of 1831, the painting has been understood in various ways and caused quite an uproar. Critics said that the painting was a slander of the three glorious days, that Liberty was ignoble, and that the insurgents represented a rude class of people, urchins and workmen. The newly blossoming bourgeoisie was shocked by the painting – it was seen as crude and unnecessary.
The Death of Sardanapalus by Delacroix, 1827 This vast canvas is full of beautiful chaos. There is flesh and rich fabric and gorgeous colour. There is turbulence and cruelty – and opulence, ruin, decadence, slaughter, luxury, despair, violation, helplessness, sacrifice, the whole business. The massacre is coming to its finale. One after another, the deeds are falling down.
Delacroix and the period in which he lived are intertwined.
It was the period of revolutions and upheavals across Europe. In France, the tensions were played out between republicanism and royalism. Delacroix’s family were conservative Republicans. His father was Napoleon’s foreign minister. And here is the contradiction in Delacroix.
During Napoleon’s hundred days he was Louis XVIII’s ‘lifeguard’, yet 15 years later he painted the revolutionary Liberty... The clue lies in the title – liberty of mind, body, spirit and art set him apart from the Art establishment. Together with Victor Hugo.
Delacroix was one of the artists that flirted with themes of human’s self-glorification, human's part in nature, divinity found in nature, and emotion. It was called Romanticism. It emphasises the individual sense of self, creativity, imagination, and the value of art to make a statement. This emphasis on the individual is reflected in the ideas of feeling, emotion, and self-realisation through the act of contemplating nature. Romantic painters like Delacroix were part of a complex multimedia philosophical movement, involving the literary, visual, and creative arts. There is the idea that the individual can only directly understand nature, free from society. Peace and salvation come through the individual rather than through political movements.
Delacroix fine-tuned Romanticism, incorporating the influences of Michelangelo and Peter Paul Rubens. He developed his personal style, with an affinity for showing pain and suffering in his work through brightly coloured canvases.
The impetus for the rebellion was Charles X's plan to reinstate systems of pre-Revolutionary France, which included: pledging one billion francs in an impoverished country to the aristocracy in reparations for property lost during the Revolution; abolishing free press and the legislature; and curtailing suffrage rights.
Three days, later on, July 27th, fighting broke out - not far from the artist's studio - between Parisians and the king's mercenaries. By 3 August 1830, the uprising was successful: Charles X abdicated and went into exile.
The 1831 Salon, though, didn't consider Liberty to be a successful painting. Worse still, the dramatic energy and proletarian power captured in this painting were deemed so incendiary and dangerous that this picture was hidden from public view until 1855.
Now, Liberty is justifiably considered one of the most famous paintings by Delacroix. However, it received a mixed reception in France. The art establishment was appalled. But the French government bought it as a sign of its commitment to liberal values. It was exhibited briefly in 1848 after the Republic was restored in the revolution of that year, and then in the Salon of 1855. In 1874, the painting entered the collection of Louvre in Paris.
Long after Delacroix’s death, the image of Liberty was printed on stamps and the 100 franc note. She remains a poster girl of the 20th and 21st century – featured on Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution. She is on the front cover of the band, Coldplay’s Viva la Vida album. Liberty Leading the People has inspired many over the decades and centuries.
This painting pre-dates Impressionists, who recorded what they saw, rather than depicting symbols in a romantic way. Would it have been possible to paint a mortal French woman in this stance? At this time probably not. Only a symbolic woman could have such a role in a piece of historical propaganda rather than a real woman.
Women of Algiers, Delacroix, 1834
About Eugene Delacroix
Delacroix was born on April 26, 1798.
He was the son of the ambassador of the French Republic to Holland. His father had been very active during the revolution. Despite his parents dying when he was a little boy, he would be very aware of the revolution and the terror that reigned afterwards.
According to Charles Baudelaire, Delacroix was a curious mixture of scepticism, politeness, dandyism, willpower, cleverness, despotism, and finally, a kind of individual goodness and tenderness.
He began to paint at the age of 17. He was hugely influenced by the Romanticist period of painting and later went on to influence the Impressionist movement, particularly Cezanne and Picasso, who copied his paintings. Romantic paintings are paintings, depictions of fantasy, and an expression of feeling – of love, of fear, of desire and even, of revolution. They are emotional paintings, not paintings of reason, or of fact.
Aged 24, Delacroix was put in charge of architectural decorations for a statesman, Adolphe Theirs. His early years were influenced by fellow Romantic artists as well as Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin. Early on, Delacroix's work demonstrated the influence of Michelangelo's and Peter Paul Rubens, as seen in Dante and Virgil in Hell, which the artist exhibited at the Salon of 1822.
His next exhibition at the Salon of 1824 was Massacres at Chios: Greek Families Awaiting Death or Slavery, which conveyed the bloody defeat of the Greeks by the Turks. Delacroix's ability to tap into the emotion of his subjects, both the conquerors and the innocent victims, caught the attention of the art world.
In 1830, Delacroix watched the fighting in central Paris alongside his friend and fellow painter Eugene Lami. This fighting had erupted not far from their studio. Delacroix was not a participant but a spectator. He wrote to his brother " Since I have not fought and conquered for the fatherland I can, at least, paint on its behalf". That’s why he painted Liberty Leading the People.
Liberty is a political poster. It marks the day when the people rose and dethroned the Bourbon King.
Delacroix made some sketches. They contained street fighters, individually and in groups. He decided to construct his artwork around the allegorical female representing Liberty. This was a daring concept – having the bloodstained victims of an actual battle, setting a high-flown symbolic figure in the middle of the dirt and triumphant on the bodies, not of the victims, but of her comrades.
For much of the 1830s, Delacroix travelled to Spain, Algeria and Morocco. His time in Morocco changed him forever; he was mesmerised by the foreign culture and continued to paint Arab subjects for the rest of his career. He produced over 100 paintings and drawings of scenes from or based on the life of the people of North Africa.
Delacroix spent most of his prime years decorating the walls and ceilings of government buildings. These mural commissions made him feel closer to his idol, Michelangelo. The canvases of his late career include The Battle of Taillebourg and The Taking of Constantinople by the Crusaders.
Delacroix died in France in 1863.