Poussinists vs. Rubenists
French artists in early nineteenth century could be broadly placed into one of two different camps. The Neoclassically trained Ingres led the first group, a collection of artists called the Poussinists (named after the French baroque painter Nicolas Poussin). These artists relied on drawing and line for their compositions. The second group, the Rubenists (named in honor of the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens), instead elevated color over line. By the time Delacroix was in his mid-20s—that is, by 1823—he was one of the leaders of the ascending French romantic movement.
Massacre at Chios: Ripped from the headlines
Comparing David’s Oath of the Horatii (above, left) with Francisco Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 (above, right) is instructive. Whereas David mined a story from more than 2,500 years ago, Goya instead completed a history painting from the recent past. This chronological immediacy only increased the pathos of Goya’s painting.
When the monumental canvas the Massacre at Chios is viewed from a short distance, it is clear that the artist placed more effort on his use of color, and employed a fluid open brushwork rather than relying on line and a carefully polished painting surface (as the Poussinists were doing). In sum, Massacres at Chios is an eloquent painting to explore when it comes to Delacroix’s commitment to romanticism. The subject was topical and exotic, and the artist used color and brushwork to elicit an emotional response from the viewer.
Liberty Leading the People
Many of these same concepts can be seen in what many regard as Delacroix’s masterpiece, Liberty Leading the People (1830). Although Delacroix completed this painting during same year in which the event occurred, it is, at its core, a history painting. Indeed, Delacroix depicts an event from the July Revolution of 1830, an event that replaced the abdicated King Charles X (r. 1824-30)—a member of the Bourbon family and the younger brother of the guillotined King Louis XVI (r. 1774-1792)—with Louis Philippe I (r. 1830-48), the so-called Citizen King. This uprising of 1830 was the historical prelude to the June Rebellion of 1832, an event featured in Victor Hugo’s famous novel, Les Misérables (1862), and the musical (1980) and films that followed. Anyone familiar with Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s musical can look at Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and hear the lyrics of the song that serves as a call to revolution:
Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? It is the music of a people. Who will not be slaves again.
A revolution for everyone
But if the female figure represents an allegory, those who surround her represent different types of people. The man on the far left holds a briquet (an infantry saber commonly used during the Napoleonic Wars). His clothing—apron, working shirt, and sailor’s trousers—identify him as a factory worker, a person in the lower end of the economic ladder. His other attire identifies his revolutionary leanings. The handkerchief around his waist, that secures a pistol, has a pattern similar to that of the Cholet handkerchief, a symbol used by François Athannase de Charette de la Contrie, a Royalist solider who led an ill-fated uprising against the First Republic, the government established as a result of the French Revolution. The white cockade and red ribbon secured to his beret also identify his revolutionary sensibilities.
A modern subject
With no less than five guns and three blades among these six primary figures, it is not surprising that the ground is littered with the dead. Some are members of the military, note the uniform decorated with shoulder epaulettes on the figure in the lower right, while others are likely revolutionaries. In total, the painting accurately renders the fervor and chaos of urban conflict. And it is, of course, an urban conflict. Notre Dame, perhaps the defining architectural monument of Paris (at least until the Eiffel Tower arrived at the end of the nineteenth century) can be clearly seen on the right side of the painting. Importantly, Delacroix signed and dated his painting immediately underneath this monument.
Smarthistory images for teaching and learning: