Liberty Leading the People Eugene Delacroix Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Eugene Delacroix has always been known for Romantic art and this style is seen in Liberty Leading the People.

This is one of the most famous paintings in history, perhaps because it embraces the ideal of freedom. Most nations have struggled for freedom from an oppressor and even in these modern times, there are still countries that can identify with a need to govern their own affairs.

The composition is designed to commemorate the July Revolution. This involved the removal of France's king at the time, Charles X. It quickly shifted political power away from the line that had ruled France by right of birth. Liberty's breasts are exposed in the painting and this is not typical. Some commentators have suggested that Delacroix uses that symbol to suggest that unprecedented change is about to happen in France and the monarchy's secrets will be revealed.

The July Revolution was completed in 1830. Eugene Delacroix painted "Liberty Leading the People" in autumn of that same year. It is historically accurate in the sense that it portrays a battle and the revolution required armed conflict between the king's soldiers and the common people. Corpses are seen in the foreground, representing the many people who died during the fighting.

Liberty Leading the People shows a woman, in the centre of a mass of soldiers and a group of men who may be either dead or dying. The woman in the painting represents freedom. The symbol is that of the goddess of liberty and is also found in the Statue of Liberty, which was given to America by people of France in 1886. She urges fighters onward even as she waves the flag that would come to represent France as an independent nation.

Movement and Colour

Eugene Delacroix had an excellent command of the modelled form. He played to his strengths in his work and many of his paintings display subjects in action poses. "The Massacre At Chios" shows that he is a strong painter of animal forms as well. Movement is used to good effect in that painting, with a horse rearing on its hind legs as its rider carries off a member of the dying group.

Strong variations in colour are used for both the subjects and the background in his work. At times, the ideas portrayed by the colours seem to conflict. Liberty is leading the people towards democracy and yet, her dress is flowing yellow, reminiscent of a more classical style.

The factory worker in the painting has two symbols in his hat. One is the white cockade which is associated with the Royalists. The other is a red ribbon which the liberals were known for wearing. The red flannel belt on the artisan who wears the top hat helps to identify his role as does the student's faluche or black beret made of velvet. Charles X, the king who was eventually deposed by the July Revolution, was a patron of Delacroix and actually purchased two of his more famous paintings.

The Tricolour Flag

The French Tricolour Flag is held aloft in Liberty's right hand as she leads the soldiers on to victory. The American Statue of Liberty also portrays Liberty with a symbol aloft but in that case, it is a flaming torch which represents freedom and hope. The Tricolour has been the main flag used by the French people since the July Revolution. The colours red and blue have been a part of the nation in some form since the first French Revolution. Louis-Phillippe, who was known as the "Citizen King", restored the Tricolor as France's national flag.

Delacroix painted dreams. He was a Romantic artist and his paintings sometimes showed elements of fantasy in different aspects of life. His painting of the Tricolour held aloft is that of the July Revolution and France as he wishes it were. In reality, all was not bright, hopeful and positive after the fighting had ended. There was still a lot more to be done.

Liberty is able to hold the flag aloft because in Delacroix's portrayal, she is a very real figure. That gives her more power than the mere suggestion of an idea of freedom. This is perhaps one of the reasons why this image has become so popular over the years. Once someone has seen Liberty holding the French flag aloft, as she does here, it may be difficult for them to see the flag any other way. It is powerful and lends the flag an air of invincibility.

The colours in the flag are used elsewhere in the painting. The revolutionary on Liberty's right is wearing a blue shirt and has his head wrapped in a red scarf. He wears a white undershirt and a red belt. He appears to be injured or dying and is looking up at her. He may have been injured in the fight but he gazes up at the woman holding the flag and all she represents.

Liberty and Death

Liberty carries a bayoneted musket in her left hand in the painting. Some experts feel that the fixed bayonet is intended to spear the enemies of the French people and nationalism. The painting does display anarchy in a positive light, where it is used to make the ideals of the people possible. Things had reached a point where the people were willing to fight and die for their nation.

A musket is a violent weapon and as Liberty steps over dead bodies, the painting captures a moment where there is both ecstasy and violence. There may not have been any other way for the French people to achieve what they wanted at that time in their history. The happiness and sense of achievement that resulted from being able to push their country in the direction in which they wanted it to go was obtained through loss of life.

The soldiers in the painting wield different weapons, perhaps speaking to the necessity of different literal and figurative weapons in the fight for freedom. They are of different ages and even a boy is seen as a part of the struggle for independence. At least 600 people died in the 3 days of fighting and some of those were children.

Eugene Delacroix may have chosen to put the child on Liberty's left side to remind viewers that death touched even the young. The little boy may be the artist's impression of one of many street urchins who could be found in France at that time. He is wielding two pistols and is looking straight ahead with fierce determination.

Liberty's facial expression is less fierce than the child's. In fact, in the painting she is seen in profile. However, she is still obviously a mighty woman. The muscles in her neck and shoulders are strong and her body language clearly indicates that she intends to achieve what she has set out to do.

Delacroix shows obedience in her followers but viewers are not led to believe it is the unquestioning obedience which was formerly displayed towards the monarchy. Instead, it is an obedience born of a desire to see better for themselves. They are striding valiantly towards a democracy and independence.

Liberty and The French People

In France, Liberty is known as Marianne. The concept of freedom is portrayed as a female figure in other French works of art, such as the bust of Marianne by Doriot. This holds a place in the French senate. Other symbols of Liberty are found on French euro coins, town halls and various other places.

Before the July Revolution, France was always led by a male from one family. The choice of Liberty as a female figure in part represents a rejection of the monarchy. That many of the national symbols also changed from those associated with a male monarchy to that of Marianne, emphasises the need the French people had to identify their nation as a republic.

Liberty is also thought of as female because the French noun for the word is female. The French word for reason is also female. Marianne's posture has changed at different times during the history of France and at different points has been depicted leaning on a symbol of authority or assuming other less confrontational poses. Her pose in Eugene Delacroix's painting is fearless as she wields her musket.

In the painting, Liberty is used to help get the artist's message across. He seems to have made an effort to include people from all walks of life, showing that liberty is for everyone. It is the right of both men and women. Her position in the painting is a reversal of the typical social order that was set by the monarchy. She is elevated above the nobleman in his derby hat on her right. They are all fighting for the same purpose with liberty at the helm.

Romantic Revolution

Delacroix was regarded as the leader of the French Romantic movement of visual artists. His paintings usually are focused on a lofty ideal. "Liberty Leading the People" is just one of them which embraces a concept that people from all walks of life can relate to, no matter what their cultural experience has been like. Almost everyone understands the idea of freedom and fighting for better opportunities.

Delacroix uses the towers of Notre Dame in his painting. They can be glimpsed in the background, amid the smoke of revolution. Romantic moments feed on emotion, satisfying the human craving for passion. The crowd in "Liberty Leading the People" displays a mix of emotions, including enthusiasm. This contrasts sharply with the corpses in the foreground.

Many times, romance glosses over the nitty gritty of real life. While bodies are included in the painting, viewers may sometimes conveniently forget that some of these soldiers of the monarchy may just have been men who were following orders. At the time, the soldiers may have forgotten that those on the opposing side were real people as well. The people that they killed were those with families and dreams of equal freedoms for all.