A-Level: Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (July 28, 1830), September – December 1830, oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)


Poussinists vs. Rubenists

If Jacques-Louis David is the most perfect example of French Neoclassicism, and his most accomplished pupil Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, represents a transitional figure between Neoclassicism and Romanticism, then Eugène Delacroix stands (with, perhaps, Theodore Gericault) as the most representative painter of French romanticism.
Left: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Self Portrait at the age of 24, 1804 (Musée Condé); right: Eugène Delacroix, Self-Portrait, c. 1837 (Musée du Louvre)

Left: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Self Portrait at the age of 24, 1804 (Musée Condé); right: Eugène Delacroix, Self-Portrait, c. 1837 (Musée du Louvre)

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.

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (July 28, 1830), September – December 1830, oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (July 28, 1830), September – December 1830, oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

From an early age, Delacroix had received an exceptional education. He attended the Lycée Imperial in Paris, an institution noted for instruction in the Classics. While a student there, Delacroix was recognized for excellence in both drawing and Classics. In 1815—at the age of only 17—he began his formal art education in the studio of Pierre Guérin, a former winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome (Rome Prize) whose Parisian studio was considered a particular hotbed for romantic aesthetics. In fact, Theodore Gericault, who would soon become a romantic superstar with his Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), was still in Guérin’s studio when Delacroix arrived in 1815. The young artist’s innate skill and his teacher’s able instruction were an excellent match and prepared Delacroix for his formal admission to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (the School of Fine Arts) in 1816.

Massacre at Chios: Ripped from the headlines

Eugène Delacroix, Scene of the massacre at Chios; Greek families awaiting death or slavery, 1824 Salon, oil on canvas, 164 × 139 inches (419 cm × 354 cm) (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Eugène Delacroix, Scene of the massacre at Chios; Greek families awaiting death or slavery, 1824 Salon, oil on canvas, 164 × 139 inches (419 cm × 354 cm) (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Less than a decade later, Delacroix’s career was clearly on the rise. In 1824, for example, Delacroix exhibited his monumental Massacres at Chios at the annual French Salon. This painting serves as an excellent example of what what Delacroix hoped romanticism could become. Rather than look to the examples of the classical past for a narrative, Delacroix instead looked to contemporary world events for his subject. This “ripped from the headlines” approach was common for many romantic painters.
Left: Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 3.3 x 4.25m, commissioned by Louis XVI, painted in Rome, exhibited at the salon of 1785 (Musée du Louvre); right: Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808, 1814-15, oil on canvas, 8' 9" x 13' 4" (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

Left: Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 3.3 x 4.25m, commissioned by Louis XVI, painted in Rome, exhibited at the salon of 1785 (Musée du Louvre); right: Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808, 1814-15, oil on canvas, 8′ 9″ x 13′ 4″ (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

Female figure (detail), Eugène Delacroix, Scene of the massacre at Chios; Greek families awaiting death or slavery, 1824 Salon, oil on canvas, 164 × 139 inches (419 cm × 354 cm) (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Female figure (detail), Eugène Delacroix, Scene of the massacre at Chios; Greek families awaiting death or slavery, 1824 Salon, oil on canvas, 164 × 139 inches (419 cm × 354 cm) (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

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.

Delacroix has upped Goya’s ante in Scene of the massacre at Chios, however, by not only depicting Greek families awaiting death or slavery, but, by also chronicling a catastrophic event from the Greek War of Independence (from the Ottoman Empire) from a far-off location (the small island of Chios is located just off the coast of Turkey).  About the Greek War of Independence

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.
Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (July 28, 1830), September – December 1830, oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Selfie before Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (July 28, 1830), September – December 1830, oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

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.
Bust detail, Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (July 28, 1830), September – December 1830, oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Liberty (detail), Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (July 28, 1830), September – December 1830, oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Liberty

 Delacroix’s painting, Liberty Leading the People, at first seems to be overpowered by chaos, but on closer inspection, it is a composition filled with subtle order. The first thing a viewer may notice is the monumental—and nude to the waist—female figure. Her yellow dress has fallen from her shoulders, as she holds a bayonetted musket in her left hand and raises the tricolor—the French national flag—with her right. This red, white, and blue arrangement of the flag is mimicked by the attire worn by the man looking up at her. She powerfully strides forward and looks back over her right shoulder as if to ensure those who she leads are following. Her head is shown in profile—like a ruler on a classical coin—and she wears atop her head a Phrygian cap, a classical signifier of freedom. This is an important bit of costuming—in ancient Rome, freed slaves were given one to wear to indicate their newly liberated status, and this headwear became a symbol of freedom and liberty on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Clearly, this figure is not meant to be a portrait of a specific individual, and Delacroix did not mean to suggest that there was a half-naked woman running around carrying a loaded firearm and a flag during the Trois Glorieuses—the Three Glorious Days as it came to be known—of the July Revolution. Instead, she serves as an allegory—in this instance, a pictorial device intended to reveal a moral or political idea—of Liberty. In this, she is similar to an example familiar to those in the United States, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty (1886). Clearly, this monumental statue is not a portrait of a woman named Liberty who wears a Roman toga, carries a torch, and an inscribed tablet. Instead, she represents an idea. The same is true of Delacroix’s painted Liberty.

Figures at left (detail), Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (July 28, 1830), September – December 1830, oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Figures at left (detail), Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (July 28, 1830), September – December 1830, oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

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.

This factory worker provides a counterpoint to the younger man beside him who is clearly of a different economic status. He wears a black top hat, an open-collared white shirt and cravat, and an elegantly tailored black coat. Rather than hold a military weapon like his older brother-in-arms, he instead grasps a hunting shotgun. These two figures make clear that this revolution is not just for the economically downtrodden, but for those of affluence, too.

Left: fallen adolescent, and right, Boy wielding two pistols (detail), Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, oil on canvas, September - December, 1830 (exhibited and purchased by the state from the Salon of 1831) 2.6 x 3.25m (Louvre, Paris)

Left: fallen adolescent, and right, Boy wielding two pistols (detail), Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, oil on canvas, September – December, 1830 (exhibited and purchased by the state from the Salon of 1831) 2.6 x 3.25m (Louvre, Paris)

This revolution is not only for the adults—two young boys can be identified among the insurgents. On the left, a fallen adolescent who wears a light infantry bicorne and holds a short saber, struggles to regain his footing amongst the piled cobblestones that make up a barricade. The more famous of the pair, however, is on the right side of the painting (image, right). Often thought to be the visual inspiration for Hugo’s character of Gavroche in Les Misérables, this boy wildly wields two pistols. He wears a faluche—a black velvet beret common to students—and carries what appears to be a school or cartridge satchel (with a crest that may be embroidered) across his body.

A modern subject

Paris (detail), Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, oil on canvas, September - December, 1830 (exhibited and purchased by the state from the Salon of 1831) 2.6 x 3.25m (Louvre, Paris)

Paris (detail), Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, oil on canvas, September – December, 1830 (exhibited and purchased by the state from the Salon of 1831) 2.6 x 3.25m (Louvre, Paris)

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.

Although not everyone can pick up a weapon and stand a post in a war, Delacroix would have us believe that everyone can be a revolutionary. When corresponding with his brother on 28 October 1830—less than three months after the July Revolution, Delacroix wrote, “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.” In doing so, Delacroix completed what has become both a defining image of French romanticism and one of the most enduring modern images of revolution. It has even been appropriated—although slightly altered—by the British rock band Coldplay as an album cover for their 2006 release Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends.


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Louvre in Paris, looking at a large canvas by Delacroix, “Liberty Leading the People.” This painting dates to 1830. This is Romanticism.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] It depicts an event of 1830. This is a contemporary subject. It’s important to remember that large paintings like this were generally reserved for history paintings — at least, according to the rules of the Academy — but here, like Géricault before him, Delacroix is taking on a contemporary subject. This is something that people in Paris experienced in July of 1830.

Dr. Zucker: [0:37] This was the revolution that ousted the reactionary king Charles X and installed on the throne the more moderate king Louis-Philippe.

Dr. Harris: [0:45] But we’re seeing a moment where the outcome of the revolution is not sure. We’re seeing fighting on the streets of Paris. We see the very recognizable cathedral of Notre-Dame in the background.

Dr. Zucker: [0:56] Notre-Dame was a symbol of the monarchy. It was a symbol of conservatism, and yet Delacroix represents at the top of one of its towers the tricolor, the flag of the revolutionaries.

Dr. Harris: [1:07] Liberty is an allegorical figure. She is a symbol of an idea that led the revolutionaries, many of them, to give up their lives to oust a conservative and reactionary monarch.

Dr. Zucker: [1:20] One might just think of the Statue of Liberty. That’s not an actual person. It’s a personification of an idea. Here, too, this woman is a personification of the idea of liberty, the idea of freedom.

[1:31] The fact that her breasts are visible is a reference to antiquity, to the birth of democracy, to ancient Greece and the Roman Republican tradition.

Dr. Harris: [1:39] Liberty strides across the barricade, this barrier that has been set up in the streets of Paris.

Dr. Zucker: [1:45] Paris was still a medieval city with narrow, winding streets. The grand boulevards of the later 19th century had not yet been built, and so what the revolutionaries did is they dug up the cobblestones that paved the streets and they piled them up and erected these barricades that were both defensive positions but also impeded the movements of the Royalist troops.

Dr. Harris: [2:03] What’s fascinating to me is this call by Liberty to climb over the barricade, to trespass that barrier and to move forward, to continue to fight even more aggressively for these ideals.

Dr. Zucker: [2:16] Liberty’s face is shown in a perfect classical profile, recalling ancient Greek and Roman images. In doing so, she’s also turning around to call the rebels forward. We can see this throng of people moving into the distance.

[2:30] In the foreground, we see two very particular figures. We see a man with a pistol in his waist. He wears a shirt with no jacket. He’s a member of the lower class, but the pin in his hat expresses that he’s got revolutionary sympathies.

Dr. Harris: [2:42] Delacroix’s clearly giving us this idea of people of all classes coming together, because the figure right next to the worker is more nicely dressed. He’s got a top hat on, a jacket, a vest. He holds a hunting rifle instead of a pistol.

Dr. Zucker: [2:56] And so this revolution is not only for the poor. It’s also for the middle classes.

Dr. Harris: [3:00] Which is what makes it so profoundly dangerous. This is not one class against another. These are the people coming together.

Dr. Zucker: [3:08] On the right side of the canvas is a boy who holds not one but two pistols and seems rather wild. He’s a schoolboy, and you know that from the velvet cap he wears and from the satchel at his side.

Dr. Harris: [3:18] Below him, we see two soldiers who have fallen, and so it’s not just that Delacroix’s giving us this sense of victory, of liberty, striding forward, but also the terrible costs of revolution.

Dr. Zucker: [3:31] Best summed up for me by the man in the lower left who’s wearing a nightshirt as if he’s been dragged from his bed and murdered by Royalist soldiers. He’s only wearing one sock. His shirt has drawn up, and so he’s nude from the waist down.

Dr. Harris: [3:43] His shirt is bloodied, and he’s incredibly close to us. In fact, his right arm is foreshortened and moves into our space, but the figures in the foreground of the dead and the dying and the wounded are all in our space.

[3:57] This is a painting much like Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” or Gros’ “Pest House at Jaffa,” that puts forward the violence in an unidealized way.

Dr. Zucker: [4:07] The entire scene is one of chaos, one of energy. It is filled with diagonals, with smoke, with movement, and yet Delacroix has also contrived a classicizing pyramid to organize all of these figures, creating a sense of order within the chaos.

[4:23] One of the reasons the painting feels so energetic is because of the loose brushwork and because of the brilliant colors that Delacroix uses. The tricolor, the blues in the sky, the red sash of the figure that looks up to Liberty, all stand out and are in stark contrast to the more muted colors that were traditional at this moment.

Dr. Harris: [4:41] Delacroix is violating so many of the rules of the Academy. This is not a painting with perfect finish. In other words, we easily see the hand of the artist, the brushwork. This is not a painting where we see a careful attention to line and contour. Rather, we have a sense of the openness of contours, of the looseness of the handling of the paint.

Dr. Zucker: [5:04] And the contingency of each of these figures, that if we waited just a moment, they would all have shifted position.

Dr. Harris: [5:09] This painting was purchased by King Louis-Philippe to show that he was a champion of republican values, and by republican, we mean the ideals of democracy, but before the decade was over in 1839, the painting was returned to Delacroix because it was perceived as dangerous. This was an image that showed people coming together to overthrow a king, after all.

[5:33] In 1848, at the time of the next revolution, when Louis-Philippe is ousted, this painting is returned to the museum once again. This is a good reminder of just how politicized art could be in the 19th century in France.

[5:46] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Bryan Zygmont, "A-Level: Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People," in Smarthistory, July 13, 2017, accessed June 14, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/delacroix-liberty-leading-the-people-3/.