Eugene Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People

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Introduction

French Romanticism master, Eugene Delacroix commemorated the July 28th, 1830 rebellion against Charles X in his incredible work “Liberty Leading the People”. This eleven foot canvas now hangs in the Louvre as a symbol of the national spirit of the French people, but this was not always the case. Powerful both in its representation of the wages of freedom, and deemed too passionate for public viewing after the three day stint of violence, this work was hidden away until Delacroix’s death. It now stands as a masterpiece in all regards, reminding artists and the public alike of the power of creation. 

French Romanticism

Art movements, and the masterpieces created from them, often push against each other in an unending tide of supremacy and duel. The interminable fascination with freedom overcoming tyranny is exquisitely represented in Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”. However, this work is not only a historical and ideological piece culture in regards to the public, but it is also an emblem of the supremacy of French Romanticism over the dogmatic Neoclassicism. The artistic culture in which “Liberty Leading the People” was created was pulled between the conceptual competition of two primary schools of thought about the role of the elements of design in art and what they signify in regards to the ideal;

The Neoclassically trained Ingres led the first group, a collection of artists called the Poussinists (named after the French baroque painter Nicolas Poussin). These artists relied on drawing and line for their compositions. The second group, the Rubenists (named in honor of the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens), instead elevated color over line. By the time Delacroix was in his mid-20s—that is, by 1823—he was one of the leaders of the ascending French Romantic Movement. (Zygmont)

French Romanticism would emerge dominant, and remains a key signifier of the French ideal to this day. While Neoclassism can be associated with left brain logic and the line which expresses it, Romanticism can be knit to the passionate and abstract nature of the right brain. Ideally, no dichotomy would exist, and both elements of man and art could be utilized to their utmost, but in this age of polarity and in this time in history, Delacroix was honored for his mastery of the fiery passion of the spirit of revolution. Much like Picasso’s “Guernica” was a contemporary commentary of the machinations of his day, “Liberty Leading the People” was a representation of Trios Glorieuses (Three Glorious Days of the Parisian uprising of July 27-29th in 1830). The work was made the same year as the uprising, and captured the spirit of the French people at this time. On the other hand, Neoclassism represented stories from the past, and royalty from the present. The favored emergence of Romanticism over Neoclassism signaled a move away from a fixation with mythologized past, and into a focus on the present and the possibilities of the future. 

“Liberty Leading the People” is a large work consistent with the theme of battling for liberty, which was done in 1830 because the decadent French king Charles X violated the constitution without regard for the needs of the people. Lady Liberty is represented as the bringer of the light of the new day of freedom, but the cost of freedom is represented accurately as she steps over the bodies of the dead admits the darkness of the fight. On this day in France, 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. (Jones)

Young and old are seen accompanying Lady Liberty, who is balanced with the French flag and a rifle-two tools of freedom. In traditional symbolism, her breasts are bare, which signifies both courage, being without shame, and the abundant provision of Mother Nature unfettered by oppression of royalty (Gaugy). 

Just as Picasso was moved to express his outrage through “Guernica”, Delacroix was moved to commemorate this great movement of his nation. In this way, Delacroix took to the canvas with great pride and patriotism. Though he had not taken an active part in the fighting of the revolution he had done his share for his country. Instead of guns and he used an easel and a paintbrush - he felt it was his duty as a painter to record this event as the revolutionists felt it was their duty to fight. The artist was touched by the three days of revolt by the upper-class, the middle-class, and the lower-class in France all fighting to overthrow Charles X to show their outrage of the violation of the constitution and thus he paid honor to this event by providing a historical recount of French history.

Tapping into the public fervor, and his own private skill and satisfaction, Delacroix captured this moment in history with precision and passion. 

Elements of Design

Delacroix was the perfect candidate to execute this work, having been trained from an early age at the Lycee Imperial in Paris. This institution trained their students in the most detailed and thorough manner, producing artisans who had mastered many styles and mediums, and thus are equipped to innovate and transcend the traditions of the past (Zygmont). During this time “at the age of only 17—he began his formal art education in the studio of Pierre Guérin, a former winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome (Rome Prize) whose Parisian studio was considered a particular hotbed for romantic aesthetics” (Zygmont). From this preparation he moved into the acclaimed Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1816. This represents the finest art education the day had to offer, and Delacroix did not let down any of his teachers in any degree of what was imparted to him. 

The artist employs a pyramidal compositional structure with the eye being drawn to converge of the top of the pyramid. At the top is the largest concentration of light in the work and the French flag held in the proud fist of Lady Liberty. In geometry, the pyramid is the strongest of the Platonic solids, and this choice was made compositionally to send the symbolic message that freedom is the strongest stance for the state. The tip of the pyramid is limitless possibility, but much like the cycles of nature, this bright future is fed with the decay of the past. This balanced and honest approach is a hallmark of the Romantic Movement, believing the dark only accentuated the light (Delacroix).

The light is set off by the use of color, which is consistent with the French flag (red, white, and blue), and the hues of the earth’s soil (black, brown, and grey). The colors of the flag are reproduced throughout the canvas in the sky and the clothes of the revolutionaries, while the colors of the earth’s soil are found also in the sky, and in the dead at the foot of the pyramid (Zygmont). In this way the color heightens the symbolism that revolution is a natural cycle of rebirth of liberty which the sons of man are heir to. These colors are somewhat muddled together, emphasizing the interconnected nature of these cycles, and that ultimately all return to dust. 

Very striking in the composition of “Liberty Leading the People” is the brushstroke technique of Delacroix. His brushstrokes are visible, revealing not only his passion, but his confidence. His brushstrokes allow for a roughness in many places which elicits the difficulty of life. However, in the French flag the brushstrokes are most unified and whole, symbolizing the unity that comes from a righteous struggle. Much of this compositional forethought will be received by the viewer subconsciously, eliciting feeling of power, solidarity, and forward momentum. 

The use of line in “Liberty Leading the People” all converge on the theme of momentum. Lines are often curved, representing forward motion, and the unwillingness to remain static in the face of injustice (Lovett). Also, the curved lines are often diagonal which also suggests movement to the eye. In fact, some of the only straight lines in the work are the buildings seen in the far right of the picture plan. This is, “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” (Jones). These straight lines could represent the solidity of the state which will remain and grow stronger through the movements of revolution. 

The use of shape and form in the work also emphasizing the strength of the public, as the forms are solid, round, and full. This type of strength and solidity was a bit too much for the French art world to embrace after the chaos of the revolution. Art society is often slow on the uptake when confronting change, as such; Liberty Leading the People was not available for public viewing during the king's reign. Critics failed to respond to this innovative work, accustomed to a more classical representation of reality. Delacroix's mix of reality with allegory, actuality fiction, symbolism and documentary proved too advanced and imaginative for them.

Only after Delacroix’s death was the work moved to public viewing in the Musee du Luxembourg in 1893, and eleven years later it was moved to its now home I the Louvre (Artable). 

Historians point out that Delacroix’s brilliant representation of the embodiment of liberty stands out through history as a keystone of art. Historians say, “that the Statue of Liberty was inspired by Delacroix's very own personified character of Liberty in his July 28: Liberty Leading the People” (Artable). The work was hidden away for a time for fear of the people becoming too empowered by their own might. As the French people can be “Sensationalist, morbid, passionate, extreme - the aesthetic of romanticism craved desperate moments, and there is no abandon like that of the crowd” (Jones). The imagery of Lady Liberty standing guard over the port of America hopes to send a message that revolutionary here is not needed for liberty stands guard. It is up to artists of the day to comment on the veracity of this symbol.

Conclusion

Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” is a masterwork of verve and force which not only captures a pivotal moment in history, but leaves a symbolic record of the emotional power of the moment etched in pain and cultural memory. The message of this work is synergistically living in the harmony of form, color, line, and composition that the artist so skillfully created. A living reminder of the power of public will for justice.

Works Cited

Artable. “July 28: Liberty Leading the People.” Artable.com, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.artble.com/artists/eugene_delacroix/paintings/july_28:_liberty_leading_the_people

Delacroix, Eugene. “Liberty Leading the People.” Oil on canvas. Paris: Louvre, 1830. Retrieved from: http://www.wikiart.org/en/eugene-delacroix/the-liberty-leading-the-people-1830?utm_source=returned&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=referral

Gaugy, Michelle. “Why are women from Renaissance paintings often painted with one breast uncovered?” Quora.com, n.d. Retrieved from: https://www.quora.com/Why-are-women-from-Renaissance-paintings-often-painted-with-one-breast-uncovered

Grant, Catriona. “Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People –What does it stand for?” Emancipation & Liberation, Vol. 17. 20 Mar. 2009. Retrieved from: http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2009/03/20/delacroix’s-liberty-leading-the-people-–what-does-it-stand-for/

Jones, Jonathan. “Cry freedom.” The Guardian, 1 Apr. 2005. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2005/apr/02/art1

Lovett, John. “The Elements of Design.” Johnlovett.com, n.d. Retrieved from: http://www.johnlovett.com/test.htm

Zygmont, Bryan. “Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People.” Khan Academy, n.d. Retrieved from: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/becoming-modern/romanticism/romanticism-in-france/a/delacroix-liberty-leading