Eugene Delacroix - The Private life of a Masterpiece
Liberty Leading the People (1830)
Liberty Leading the People is a painting by Eugene Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830, which toppled Charles X of France. A woman personifying Liberty leads the people forward over the bodies of the fallen, holding the tricouleur flag of the French Revolution in one hand and brandishing a bayonetted musket with the other. The painting is perhaps Delacroix's best-known work.
By the time Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People, he was already the acknowledged leader of the Romantic school in French painting. Delacroix, who was born as the Age of Enlightenment was giving way to the ideas and style of romanticism, rejected the emphasis on precise drawing that characterised the academic art of his time, and instead gave a new prominence to freely brushed colour.
Delacroix painted his work in the autumn of 1830. In a letter to his brother dated 12 October, he wrote: "My bad mood is vanishing thanks to hard work. Iâ€™ve embarked on a modern subjectâ€”a barricade. And if I havenâ€™t fought for my country at least Iâ€™ll paint for her." The painting was first exhibited at the official Salon of May 1831.
Delacroix depicted Liberty as both an allegorical goddess-figure and a robust woman of the people, an approach sometimes characterized as "ignoble". The mound of corpses acts as a kind of pedestal from which Liberty strides, barefoot and bare-breasted, out of the canvas and into the space of the viewer. The Phrygian cap she wears had come to symbolize liberty during the first French Revolution, of 1789-94. The painting has been seen as a marker to the end of the Age of Enlightenment, as many scholars see the end of the French Revolution as the start of the romantic era.
The fighters are from a mixture of social classes, ranging from the bourgeoisie represented by the young man in a top hat, to the revolutionary urban worker, as exemplified by the boy holding pistols. What they have in common is the fierceness and determination in their eyes. Aside from the flag held by Liberty, a second, minute tricolore can be discerned in the distance flying from the towers of Notre Dame.
The identity of the man in the top hat has been widely debated. The suggestion that it was a self-portrait by Delacroix has been discounted by modern art historians. In the late 19th century, it was suggested the model was the theatre director Ã‰tienne Arago; others have suggested the future curator of the Louvre, FrÃ©dÃ©ric Villot; but there is no firm consensus on this point.