Eugene Delacroix Liberty Leading The People Analysis Essay
It is the definitive image of the French Revolution - and yet Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People does not portray the French Revolution at all. The subtitle of the nearly 11ft-wide canvas that hangs in the gallery of the Louvre reserved for the greatest French history paintings - those large and weighty accounts of public events, among which this is a rather small and modest image - is very specific. This scene, it tells us, took place on July 28 1830.
On that day, the people changed history in Paris. Students rang the great bell of Notre Dame, work stopped altogether and people fired at soldiers from windows high over narrow streets. Crowds built up, shouting: "Down with the king!" By late afternoon, royal troops were making a last stand in the Tuileries while Charles X dined outside the city. The Bourbon king had alienated natural supporters as well as radicals with ultra-conservative policies, and the outcome of the July revolution was cautious reform; the liberal Duc d'Orléans was persuaded to take the crown, hailed by the statesman Lafayette as in himself "the best of republics".
Delacroix's political masterpiece does not depict the peaceful and eminently reasonable, not to say bourgeois, outcome of the 1830 Paris uprising but its moment of anarchic freedom, when anything seemed possible. It is the most enduring image of what revolution feels like, from within: ecstatic, violent, libidinal and murderous.
Liberty, her dress falling down to expose her big round breasts and muscular neck, holds up the tricolour, the flag of liberty (and now the French national flag) in a powerful arm. She turns in profile, as if oblivious to the madness around her. In her other hand is a rifle; it has a fixed bayonet, to spear the enemies of freedom at close quarters. Next to the cruel blade in the gunsmoke is a pistol held aloft by a boy running forward, guns in both hands, a cry on his lips - he reminds you of Robert Capa's photograph of a Spanish republican at the instant of death, or the last moments of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - and you just know this street urchin didn't make it, that he was one of the 600 dead among the people in the glorious July Days. On the other side of Liberty is an intellectual, a ragged bohemian poet or even painter who has come out of his garret, setting aside his verses, to join the People, his top hat skewed raffishly, a rifle clutched as if he has never touched a firearm before.
Intellectuals and street kids fighting side by side, clambering over the bodies of soldiers who, betrayed by their king, were left to die - Delacroix painted an image of revolution that gets under its skin, and into its fantasy like no other. In the smoke, we glimpse the towers of Notre Dame, established as the icon of French romanticism by Victor Hugo in his novel Notre Dame de Paris, published in 1831. Delacroix and Hugo are romantics, and the July Revolution was the romantic revolt, made by people uniquely well-placed not just to make history but, for want of a better word, to enjoy it. Sensationalist, morbid, passionate, extreme - the aesthetic of romanticism craved desperate moments, and there is no abandon like that of the crowd. This is why it is the comparatively slight 1830 revolution that has given us our definitive painting of Liberty Leading the People.
No prizes for guessing, for example, the image on the paperback cover of Eric Hobsbawm's classic history, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848. Yet Delacroix's revolution was far less momentous than the ones that give Hobsbawm's book its opening and closing dates. The 1848 uprisings saw the birth of revolutionary socialism, with the appearance of Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto. Before the French Revolution of 1789 the word "revolution" didn't mean what it does today. It meant what it sounds like - a turnaround, a full circle, back to the beginning; there was no concept of revolution as a total break with the past, the absolute overturning of an old order. But that was what happened in France in the 1790s. The great revolution invented modern politics because it did two things: legitimised popular action and contemplated the total destruction of tradition. Why, then, did this convulsion that created the modern world leave no images as infectious as Liberty Leading the People?
The 18th-century revolution involved great artists: the history painter Jacques-Louis David not only helped undermine the ancien régime with his image of renewal The Oath of the Horatii, but was an active militant. Yet his most specific image of the revolution does not, at all, summon the romance and comradeship of Delacroix's picture. David's Marat Assassinated is a scene of solitude and isolation in which the revolutionary Marat lies alone under black empty space in the bath where he was killed - the opposite of the crowd to whose unity Delacroix pays homage. By 1793, the myth of revolution - that of a collective act by the people, for the common good - had produced its nightmare antithesis; suspicion, paranoia and the Terror.
We know the story. Revolutions don't have happy endings. Delacroix was able to paint the romance of the people taking to the streets because July 1830 wasn't a complete revolution at all, only a moment: a taste, for the Romantic generation, of what their grandparents had felt singing The Marseillaise . Thomas Carlyle, writing in the 1830s, said the French Revolution had not yet ended. As myth, it still hasn't - and it is the myth that Delacroix paints.
He was born to paint it. A disciple of the Baroque energy of Rubens, Delacroix was the painter most purely allied to the romantic movement in literature. In The Death of Sardanapalus he illustrates, on a stupendous scale, a verse play by Byron, and he also followed Byron, in imagination, to Greece, painting cruel and vivid scenes from the war of independence in which Byron died. Delacroix painted visceral animal hunts and fantasies of life in a harem. Dreams, not realities, were his subject matter. The brief anarchic release of the July Days appears in his painting as precisely that.
Liberty Leading the People is, literally, a dream. Liberty was not there as a semi-nude goddess leading the people forward to death or victory. Nor does she function as an allegory in a neatly rational way. Delacroix makes her a living, breathing woman; colossal and majestic, even frightening, but definitely alive. It is a mystical rapture that might be part of the folklore of those days.
There are other dreamlike qualities to the painting. Weirdly, the revolutionary who looks up at Liberty from the ground has a blue shirt and a red headscarf that closely resemble, in the deeply shadowed and soft-textured way they are painted, the style of Salvador Dalí. But Dalí was not, himself, a great champion of revolution. He fell out with the surrealists after he portrayed Lenin with a huge distended buttock. And a closer look at the soft, ragged clothes of Delacroix's crawling rebel reveals something even more Dalinian. He has a bit of white shirt poking out under his blue top - that is, he is decked in red, white and blue, echoing the tricolour that flies over the barricades. This man is clothed in a decayed, dying version of Liberty's flag: he is her sick shadow.
Delacroix has painted the hysterical freedom and joy of revolution. His painting survives as revolution's most charismatic visual icon. And yet it is not naive. Death is part of the glamour, and there is sickness at the very centre of progress. Romanticism is not an optimistic art. If Delacroix's painting understands the seduction of revolution better than any other, it also acknowledges the violence that is inseparable from that belief in total change and the rule of the crowd. When you look at this canvas in the Louvre, the figures closest to your eye are the corpses over which Liberty leads the People.
Art is influenced by socio-political events and historical conditions; consequently, art is a reaction to society’s changes and transformations. Eugene Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People in 1830. The 18th century was known as the Age of Enlightenment as it brought about the quest for knowledge, industrialism, Neo-Classical art and physical materialism. Romanticism was created as a reaction to these changes and events. Delacroix utilizes Romanticism in his painting as it reflected the current art style. War is the ideal vehicle for Romanticism as it combines terror, violence and heroism. This can be seen in Liberty Leading the People as it depicts the July Revolution of 1830. Like other Romantic art, Liberty Leading the People has a sublime quality as it communicates feelings of grandeur, intensity and greatness. Sublime is usually incorporated into Romantic paintings of nature as seen in The Wreck of the Hope and The Eruption of Vesuvius. The painting involves dark colors and bold brush strokes. It rejects the precise drawing style associated with French academic art of the time period. Liberty Leading the People illustrates artistic preference and in turn society’s values during the Romantic period.
Liberty Leading the People also acts as a propaganda piece. Eugene Delacroix created this painting shortly after the July Revolution of 1830 where Charles X was overthrown as head of the monarchy in France. The painting allegorically symbolizes the conquest of the French people. The focal point of the painting is a loosely clothed woman holding the French revolutionary flag and a musket. In my opinion, she symbolizes the purity of the revolutionary cause and the French campaign for liberty and change. The woman personifies these ideals that French citizens held so highly. The revolution was brutal but in the painting French citizens advance seemingly unchallenged, stepping over the French army with ease. Liberty Leading the People glorifies French society’s victory, depicting the revolutionary’s view of an easy success. The painting shows a dockworker (far left), white-collar gentlemen (middle) and young boy (far right) working together to take back their country. The painting highlights the remarkable collaboration of all male French citizens from different classes and walks of life. They march together, as one. The entire painting glorifies war as a means to perpetuate French pride. The painting is structured as a pyramid, with the woman who personifies the values of French society, at the top. The painting reflects the radical idea that instigated the French Revolution, we all must look up to the ideals of liberty.
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