Liberty Leading the People
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Liberty Leading the People (La Liberté guidant le peuple) is a painting by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830. A barefoot and bare-breasted woman personifying Liberty leads the people forward over the bodies of the fallen, holding the tricolore flag of the French Revolution in one hand and brandishing a bayonetted musket with the other. This is perhaps Delacroix's best-known painting, having carved its own niche in popular consciousness.
By the time Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People, he was already the acknowledged leader of the Romantic school in French painting. Delacroix, who was born as the Age of Enlightenment was giving way to the ideas and style of romanticism, rejected the emphasis on precise drawing that characterized the French academic art of his time, and instead gave a new prominence to freely brushed color.
Delacroix painted his work in the autumn of 1830. In a letter to his brother dated 12 October, 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." The painting was first exhibited at the official Salon of May 1831.
Delacroix depicted Liberty, personified by Marianne, symbol of the nation, as both an allegorical goddess-figure and a robust woman of the people, an approach that contemporary critics denounced as "ignoble". The mound of corpses acts as a kind of pedestal from which Liberty strides, barefoot and bare-breasted, out of the canvas and into the space of the viewer. The Phrygian cap she wears had come to symbolize liberty during the first French Revolution, of 1789-94. The painting has been seen as a marker to the end of the Age of Enlightenment, as many scholars see the end of the French Revolution as the start of the romantic era.
The fighters are from a mixture of social classes, ranging from the upper classes represented by the young man in a top hat, to the revolutionary middle class or (bourgeoisie), as exemplified by the boy holding pistols (who may have been the inspiration for the character Gavroche in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables). What they have in common is the fierceness and determination in their eyes. Aside from the flag held by Liberty, a second, minute tricouleur can be discerned in the distance flying from the towers of Notre Dame.
The identity of the man in the top hat has been widely debated. The suggestion that it was a self-portrait by Delacroix has been discounted by modern art historians. In the late 19th century, it was suggested the model was the theatre director Etienne Arago; others have suggested the future curator of the Louvre, Frédéric Villot; but there is no firm consensus on this point.
Purchase and exhibition
The French government bought the painting in 1831 for 3,000 francs with the intention of displaying it in the throne room of the Palais du Luxembourg as a reminder to the "citizen-king" Louis-Philippe of the July Revolution, through which he had come to power. This plan did not come to fruition and the canvas was hung in the palace's museum gallery for a few months, before being taken down for its inflammatory political message. Delacroix was permitted to send the painting to his aunt Félicité for safekeeping. It was exhibited briefly in 1848 and then in the Salon of 1855. In 1874, the painting entered the Louvre.
The painting inspired the Statue of Liberty in New York City, which was given to the United States as a gift from the French only 50 years after Liberty Leading the People had been painted. The statue, which holds a torch in its hand, takes a more stable, immovable stance than that of the woman in the painting.
An engraved version of this painting, along with a depiction of Delacroix himself, was featured on the 100-franc note in the early 1990s.
The painting is frequently reproduced and reinterpreted in popular culture, and has recently been featured on the front cover of Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Revolution, Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, The Economist, and in the artwork for Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends by Coldplay.
The painting has had an influence on classical music as well; the American George Antheil titled his Symphony No. 6 After Delacroix, and stated that the work was inspired by Liberty Leading the People.