KAZoART’s “Canvassing the Masterpieces” unravels a true “pièce de résistance” in every sense of the word. Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix is an undisputed pinnacle work in French Romanticism art. Now occupying a prominent place in the Louvre, its meaning and symbolism are just as relevant today as in 1830. Let’s take a deeper look into the politically-charged message behind Delacroix’s masterpiece.

A revolutionary painting

Delacroix painted this large-scale work between October and December 1830. The scene depicted takes place during the Three Glorious Days (July 27, 28, 29) which were part of the July Revolution in 1830. Contrary to what many think, this is not a painting about the French Revolution of 1789, rather, the Second Revolution.

The Second Revolution took place under King Charles X’s regime and was dubbed The Restoration. This was when he tried to restrict recently-granted freedoms by royal decrees which was clearly not in line with the people’s political interests. In an act of rebellion, the Parisians rose up and led a revolution. In the end, Charles X stepped down and the July monarchy, a constitutional one, was put into place with Louis-Philippe I as king.

Portrait of Charles X of France in his coronation robe

Delacroix did not take part in the riots but was deeply progressive in his political convictions and wanted to pay tribute to the rebellion. He chose to do so in an allegorical and realistic way by depicting the people and Liberty (the personification of a free political state) marching together and crossing a barricade.

The work was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1831 under the title Scènes de Barricades. It was quickly purchased by Louis-Philippe and exhibited in the Musée de Luxembourg. In 1874, it was given to the Louvre, where it has stayed every since. It’s message has aged well as it remains emblematic of the freedom of the French Republic.

Delacroix’s masterpiece in its current place in the Louvre

4 details you don’t want to miss

1. Liberty personified

Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.
Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.

Liberty is staged front and center in this painting. She is depicted as a woman of the people and wears the famous Phyrgian hat that was adopted by the revolutionaries in 1789. In her right hand she holds the French Tricolour which flies high and occupies the most elevated point in the canvas.

She is clothed in a yellow dress whose right sleeve has slipped down. The element of a revealed chest is evocative of the ancient Greeks. Furthermore, the draping in her clothing alludes to that in Classical sculpture. Scholars believe that Delacroix modeled her after the Winged Victory which had recently been discovered and was on display at the time this painting was realised.

In that same vein, her profile and straight nose echo the facial features in classical Greek statuary. Halfway turning back while still continuing forward, her silhouette distances her from the other faces in the painting. She is unique. And though female, she is not “feminine”. Delacroix’s depiction of a half-nude woman was not in keeping with the artistic norms of his time. She is gritty, aggressive, and has armpit hair!

Her choice of weapon should not go unnoticed. She holds an 1816 infantry bayonet. This was resolutely modern and the main weapon used in the 1830 uprising. Stepping over dead bodies with her bare feet, she marches forward with the people behind her.

2. The Parisian “Gavroche”

Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.
Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.

Alongside Liberty, we see another easily recognisable character in the composition. He is a young boy from Paris, what the French might call a “titi”. This indicates a child who knows the ins and outs of Paris and was practically raised in the streets. He dons a black velvet beret (a feluche) which is what the students wore at the time. This boy is thus the symbol of the youth’s revolt. He doesn’t look to the woman beside him but instead mimics her pose, charging forward, forever frozen in a cry of exhortation.

Carrying a giberne, a bag in which soldiers kept their ammunition, he waves two cavalry pistols. Twenty years later, this courageous kid will become the character named Gavroche in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.

In the background and beyond the smoke and fumes, we can see the towers of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, placing this combat in the heart of Paris. If you look even closer, you can see that a French flag has been discretely mounted on one of the towers.

It should be noted, however, that the orientation of these towers on the left bank of the Seine is not an accurate depiction of their actual placement. It nonetheless conveys Delacroix’s point about the fight being close to home for those on both sides of the conflict.

3. The “bourgeois” and the blue-collar worker

Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.
Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.

The two most visible fighters are on the left, clearly following suit in the assault led by Liberty. Preparing to cross the barricade, the character to the right is surprising given that he’s a member of the bourgeois, the upper class. This distinction is made by his clothing and his top hat.

However, he is also dressed in wide-legged pants with a red belt, meaning that he’s a craftsman. The weapon he holds is used for hunting, further classifying him as a bourgeois. Some scholars recognise this as Delacroix’s self-portrait.

At his side stands a blue-collar worker. His class is recognisable due to his apron and and pants. He is wearing a red ribbon which is a symbol for the Liberal party of the people. Armed with a sword belonging to the infantry, his pistol sits at his waist, secured by a red and blue handkerchief.

4. A representation of death

Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.
Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.

At the bottom of the composition, the bodies of fallen soldiers lie on the ground. They are not depicted as glorified fighters who died for their homeland, but defeated men. Half naked, the soldier on the left is deprived of his honour. His bare legs are witness to such. Blood stains the ground, as it was a violent uprising. In 3 days, 200 soldiers and 800 insurgents were killed.

This elongated body is reminiscent of other figures in art history. At first glance he takes on the ancient pose of Hector, who was killed by Achilles. The fact that Delacroix uses this setup points to the fact that he was trained in an academic setting. However, he also learned from his contemporaries: the body bears striking similarities to a painting by Géricault, entitled, The Raft of the Medusa wherein dead and dying men scatter the foreground and a pyramidal composition dominates the scene.

One of Delacroix’s preparatory studies for the fallen bodies

Finally, we must not overlook the manner in which the naked body is illuminated with the same amount of light as is used on Liberty. In doing this, Delacroix is sending a message: death and defeat are what await those who try to stamp out the freedom of the people. In victory, Liberty flies her flag high and leads her people on.

Delacroix-inspired work on KAZoART