Eugène Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People, 28 July 1830 – 1830
Paris, Musée du Louvre
On 28 October, 1830, Delacroix wrote to his brother: ‘I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her. It has restored my good spirits’. The painting he had started was this one and it would become a universal symbol of glorious revolution and of France itself.
The Paris uprising it represents was called the Trois Glorieuses (Three Glorious Days) – 27, 28, and 29 July 1830 – when Republicans rose up against King Charles X’s attempt to reinstate absolute monarchy. Charles, the last Bourbon king, was deposed and replaced by the more politically flexible Louis-Philippe, Duc d’Orléans.
Delacroix was in Paris at the time and wrote to his nephew: ‘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’.
Although he did not participate in the revolt, his friends, such as Adolphe Thiers, were among the uprising’s leaders. Delacroix also shared a popular nostalgia for the Napoleonic era and was thus deeply moved when the tricolor was raised once more over Notre-Dame. His non-participation however reflects the artist’s realistic side; his chief patrons were institutions and members of the royal family, including Charles X. And the artist in him stepped up to protect the Louvre’s collections from rioters. But as the leader of the Romantic Movement and a believer in liberty, he felt that with this painting he was rebalancing the scales, fulfilling his patriotic duty. With impressive speed, he began painting in September and was finished by December 1830.
The canvas is filled with the romantic fervour for which he was known. His aim was to translate real feeling and convictions into painting and here he depicts all the rage and passion of revolution with a ragtag group of rebels breaking through the enemy’s barricades about to make its final assault.
Though a passionate painter, in his themes, brushwork and rhythms, Delacroix aimed to balance Classicism and Romanticism and here he bases his composition on the pyramid; with a base of corpses supporting the soon-to-be victors. At its peak, highlighted by clouds of white smoke and light is the personification of Liberty, a young woman in a Phrygian cap, waving the tricolor in one hand and a gun in the other. Part goddess, part market woman, she wears an antique styled dress, her breasts exposed like ancient statues of winged victory. Yet despite her Grecian profile, her complexion is ruddy, her hands are strong and in a bit of unexpected realism, she has underarm hair, a detail called vulgar by contemporary critics. But her air is noble and fierce and exuding vibrant, unshakable confidence she urges the others towards victory.
Around Liberty are the good citoyens of Paris. To her right a young boy in a black beret brandishing two guns is known as Gavroche, a symbol of youthful revolt against injustice and noble sacrifice. To her left are a factory worker, wielding a sword and wearing his work apron, and a top-hatted bourgeois with a double-barrelled shotgun, who is thought to represent Delacroix, or perhaps one of his friends. Below Liberty’s feet are dead and dying men and behind her are students and soldiers coming to take their place. The towers of Notre Dame rise in the background, though their geographical location is incorrect; Delacroix includes them as a Romantic reminder of the high ideals for which they fight and to set the scene in Paris.
The finished work was exhibited at the Salon in May 1831, less than a year after the actual event. A passionate mix of reality and allegory, it was slammed by the critics for its lack of classical rigour; however its subject pleased those of similar political leanings and it was purchased by the government to hang in the Luxembourg Palace as a reminder to Louis-Philippe of the results of a constitutional monarch overstepping his bounds. However it was soon deemed too radical and removed. Rarely exhibited again until after Delacroix’s death in 1863, it was acquired by the Louvre in 1874, where it has inspired everything from the Statue of Liberty to the French franc: in the later 20th-century the 100 franc note bore this painting, Delacroix’s most iconic work.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1830 Samual Palmer: The Magic Apple Tree, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum
c1830 Caspar David Friedrich: Mountain Landscape in Bohemia, Hamburg, Kunsthalle