One of the most famous paintings by Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People is best understood by recalling Western art history in the first half of the 19th century.
At that time, the history of painting was an ongoing dialogue between two of its most famous painters:
Their rivalry centered on the supremacy of line and draftsmanship, championed by Ingres, versus that of color, advocated by his rival. This echoed the 17th century debate between the Poussinists and Rubenists. The Poussinists championed academism and the superiority of drawing, while the Rubenists felt that color and its expressive potential were most significant.
In the hands of these famous painters, this debate became Classicism versus Romanticism. Today, art history considers Delacroix the father of French Romantic painting.
Eugene Delacroix. Self Portrait. Oil on canvas, ca. 1837. Louvre, Paris. To right.
Although his classical education at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Delacoix’s passion was not in the academic; rather, he opted to capture moments of extreme emotion in his paintings. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Liberty Leading the People, 1830.
Historical Events Surrounding Liberty Leading the People
Liberty was painted in the aftermath of Paris’ “Three Glorious Days” of July 27-29, 1830, when a widespread revolt overthrew the regime of Charles X of France.
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.
Liberty is a prime example of why and how famous paintings are best understood by exploring their political and social contexts. How so?
Liberty Leading the People, 1830. Oil on canvas, approx. 8’6″ by 10’8″. Louvre, Paris.
This seemingly minor detail conveys a crucial 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 saber (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 donned by university students. And so it is with top hats and cloth hats.
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 reminiscent of ancient statuary, an allegory of revolution set in a realistic battle scene. She, too, wears a hat; her Phrygian cap was a widely recognized symbol of liberty during the French Revolution. She grasps a musket in one hand and the new Tricolor in the other.
This flag was adopted by the new monarchy to supersede the white flag of the Bourbons. Repetition of the Tricolor – on the Notre Dame towers in the distant and on end of a pike at the left – conveys hope hat this new regime won’t revert to pre-Revolutionary France. Within the subdued palette of Liberty, the saturated hues of the flag are a riveting exception; its colors are echoed in the blue pants legs, socks and jacket, and in the red sash and blood stains of the downed fighters.
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 succesful painting. Critics sniped that Liberty herself looked like a working class woman, a fishwife, or perhaps even a harlot.
Worse still, the dramatic energy and proletarian power captured in this painting were deemed so incendiary and dangerous that this masterpiece was hidden from public view until 1855.
Now, Liberty is justifiably considered one of the most famous paintings by Delacroix, with its use on French bills and postage stamps (left) attesting to its status as an icon of French culture and art history.
See how engaging art history can be when told a certain way?
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