Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Bite 95: Eugene Delacroix - Liberty Leading the People, 1830

Liberty Leading the People, 1830, oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm, Louvre, Paris
Painted to commemorate the ‘July Revolution’ of July 28th 1830 Liberty Leading the People is a true icon of French Revolutionary art. A new kind of history painting in which allegory is brilliantly combined with the portrayal of an historical event - the ideal and allegorical with the contemporary and real - the subject matter is used to convey a sense of patriotic solidarity, the idea of a necessary violence in the name of Liberty. 

“I have undertaken a modern subject, a scene on the barricades,” Delacroix explained, “and if I haven’t fought for my country at least I have painted for her.” Somewhat reminiscent of the corpses in Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa the foreground shows a mass of fallen bodies clearly indicating Delacroix’s understanding that ‘The People’ is nothing more than a mass of individuals caught up in historical events. 

The German poet Heinrich Heine in his review of the Paris Salon of 1831, where the painting was a clear standout, described the painting in detail and exclaimed “And there we have it! A great thought has ennobled and sainted these poor common people, this rabble, and again awakening the slumbering dignity of their souls.” 

At the apex of the compositional triangle is the allegorical ‘Lady Liberty’, bare breasted and determined, flourishing a bayonet and the tricolour, advancing towards the spectator whilst turning to rally her supporters. She is a personification of the Idea uniting the People, who are represented by a tenacious miscellany group of followers including, perhaps surprisingly, a man in bourgeois dress complete with top-hat, previously believed to be Delacroix himself. 

Delacroix’s female personification of Liberty has become a potent symbol for the idea of liberty and has carved its own niche in popular culture.

D. B. Brown, Romanticism (Art & Ideas), (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2001), 116. 
P. Pool, Delacroix (The Colour Library of Art), (London: Paul Hamlyn, 1969), 32. 
H. Honour and J. Fleming, A World History of Art, revised 7th ed. (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., 1982/2009), 651.