Contrary to popular belief, the famous painting by Eugene Delacroix, Liberty leading the people, was painted in 1830 just after the July Revolution that year, and not in the context of the French Revolution of 1789.
The revolution of 1830 would give Louis-Phillipe de Orléans a freeway to become king of France, while Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) would present this masterpiece at the Salon Officiel next year. Everyone was astonished then. The painting resounded among the rest which happened to have the July Revolution as theme.
The French State bought the art work for 3.000 francs to be hanged in front of the king’s throne as a memento of the people who has brought him to power, but it never happened. Instead, it was exhibited at the Luxemburg Palace for a few months. It was feared that the painting would awake new popular revolts. Finally, it ended in Delacroix’s hands in 1832 and –according to Jules Champfleury (1821-1889)- Liberty… has hidden in an attic since 1848: «It was too revolutionary». Only in 1874 it began to be part of the Louvre Museum collection. It has been exhibited publicly since then.
But, what is it about this painting that impresses everyone? Let’s see some interesting features. First of all, you know the scene is in Paris, but you don’t know where exactly. The feeling about a place that is so specific that could be anywhere is amazing.
Then you have the characters in the painting. They are almost life size and seem to run over you due to the lower point of view adopted by Delacroix. A woman is a leader of the mob at the barricades. But, who is this woman? What is the artist trying to tell us?
Liberty leading the people is the first work of art to embrace the controversial topic of popular activism and participation in politics using the rhetorical resource of the allegory. There is most of its essential value. Delacroix’s solution was unique, emblematic, strident and direct.
This allegory has received a bath of reality no one can question: the woman does not bear the traditional and classic sword, but she wields a fusil; she does not really guide the people around her from a distant point (nor flying over them), but she mingles and commands them with a flag in the other hand.
The ambiguity of her characterization makes her even more attractive: is her the Liberty or is her France? Both? Is France the Liberty? Is it that France is predestined to be free and –with it- its people? In this painting, the classic goddess is much compromised with street violence and that should have been something not just unheard of, but also odd.
The three color flag is a huge reference to the ideals of 1789. We should keep in mind that this flag disappeared when the Bourbon monarchy was restored in France in 1815, and was waved again during the events of July 1830.
In any case, Delacroix has painting a work that confronts a social and political problem of his time: how to make the people part of the political struggle? What political ideal could be share and cherished by everyone? The answer to the latter is obvious: Liberty. The answer to the first was a lot more complicated. Nevertheless, the events of 1830 had the most plausible answer: in the streets demanding their right to freedom even when that means armed struggle against the status quo.
Liberty leading the people is a storm that flies against the spectator. It does not idealizes revolution itself. It does not present revolutionary acts as good in essence, but as contradictory ones. Liberty is not something you can control when its power is released.
Étienne-Jean Delécluze (1781-1863) –favorite disciple of Jacques-Louis David- disapproved Delacroix referring to him as «l’extreme gauche en peinture.» But with this painting, Delacroix faces his time. The ancient is just a memory that seems to be updated in the heat of the revolution as the classic figure of the Liberty has been adapted to modern times. To Delacroix, the present is the moment of action and he grasp the moment making it an eternal reminder of the power of Liberty.
[Original writing ©]