Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art, this is Alessandro. On my last visit at the Louvre Museum I could admire this big oil on canvas by Eugène Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People.
It’s super well-known because of the event it pictures: the July Revolution of 1830 which toppled King Charles X of France. And today I want to read it together because there is a lot to talk about.
We are going to understand the facts that brought to such a violent moment, moving to the figures and the composition of this intense work of art.
ARTIST: Eugène Delacroix
NAME Liberty Leading the People
LOCATION Louvre Museum, Paris
DIMENSIONS 260 × 325 cm (102.4 × 128.0 in)
MATERIAL Oil on canvas
ContextLike I said, the painting represents the Revolution of July 1830 started by the Parisian citizens to replace King Charles X with Louis Philippe I. So we are in the middle of Romanticism, the artistic and intellectual movement that originated in Europe towards the end of the 18th century characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism, idealization of nature and many other features that we discovered in one of my series: click here to know more.
And that’s exactly what we have here: an apparently messy scene, dominated for sure by emotions, with a woman of the people leading other citizens forward over a barricade and the bodies of the fallen, holding the flag of the French Revolution.
This woman is the personification of the liberty, or, like we learnt in the previous video, an allegory. That means she is not an actual person, but an ideal, supreme and pure like liberty, in the shape of a woman guiding the people. And here we can see the beauty of art since Delacroix used this allegory, with such an important meaning, to push an ideal, but, at the same time, to picture real events that were taking place in those days.
And like other allegories, even her carries fundamental symbols: the flag as symbol of Revolution, the Phrygian cap (a classical signifier of freedom), a bayonetted musket because she is a fighter, but why is she exposing her breasts? That’s a reference to antiquity, to classical art. Liberty, in Latin Libertas, was actually a Roman Goddess.
The importance of Liberty
And the concept of liberty is one of the most important even nowadays, with or without exposed boobs.
Liberty strides across a barricade: barriers that the population set up in the streets of Paris to fight the troops. Those barriers were built with whatever the revolutionaries could use, even the cobblestones that paved the streets as we can see in this corner.
And we know for sure we are in Paris because, not by chance, Delacroix left a visible portion of the painting that allows to see the city behind the smoke where we can spot the symbol of Paris: Notre Dame (the Tour Eiffel will be built just years later). On the top of Notre Dame, we can see the French revolutionary flag meaning that the citizens are succeeding.
The fighters and the deads
However, the war is not over yet and that’s why liberty is looking back at the men to call them forward. She is a guide, an example for all the population. And when I say “all” I really mean it since, once again, Delacroix painted something clear in the figures in foreground. From the clothes of the man on the left we can tell he is a member of the lower class. However, on his side there is a man more nicely dressed, meaning that the revolution goes beyond social statuses.
In fact, there is even a boy actively fighting since he is holding not one, but two pistols. A clear message that all the people were really united and pissed off at the king as we can see in the crowd behind them.
But beside this upper part depicting an almost romantic idea of revolution, in the lower section Delacroix shows the cruel reality of the fighting. We can see two soldiers dead, but also a man, nude from the waist down and with a bloody shirt. All of them evidence and reminders of the revolution’s costs.
The pyramid structure
And when you stand in front of the painting, the fallen are exactly in front of us striking with their intense realism, but making of liberty an even more majestic ideal. She fills the center of the canvas thanks to the pyramid structure and we can appreciate Delacroix smart idea of using the weapons to suggest that shape. The diagonal lines are for sure dominating the scene making it a bit visually chaotic. But that’s something romantic painters were really trying to achieve.
We found a similar scene in another really intense Romantic painting, a real event as well, The raft of the Medusa by Géricault. Even there the dead corps are close to us, but the pyramid structure pushes our eye to a top point of view where life and hope are winning.
Lighting and colors
One of the last details I want you to pay attention to is the use of lighting and colors. Liberty is perfectly illuminated from the left while the other figures are more in the shade. That captures our attention even more as well as the use of another trick: the most vibrant colors are the red and blue of the flag recalled just in the corners of the sky (not completely covered by the smoke of the battle) and in the clothes of the figure who is trying to stand to follow the liberty. This figure is making a clear effort and, not by chance, we cannot understand if it’s a man or a woman since probably Delacroix wanted to represent France itself.
So more and more symbols and Delacroix proudly signed the work of art once finished in 1830. And we can tell that he rushed since it doesn’t have a perfect finish, we can often see the brushstrokes.
A last fun fact. The French government bought the painting in 1831 with the intention of displaying it in the throne room of the new king Louis-Philippe. However, guess what? They realized that the political message was a bit too dangerous and so the canvas was moved to a museum. In 1832 there was another revolution and so it was returned to the artist. But in 1848 the Republic was finally restored and so this painting became an important French symbol.
Once again, we found out how art is really part of our society. Enjoy the video and stay curious.