Liberty leading the people | Eugène Delacroix | 1830
In the late eighteenth century, France was going through the Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that considered reason as the only instrument for individual and social progress. Through the light of reason, humanity could dispel the darkness of ignorance, superstition and tyranny. It hoped to build a better world. The art at the time was also extremely rational: the technique of the artists was impeccable; their details, exquisite; the composition was studied obsessively. In short, art was less than perfect. This type of style is called “neoclassicism” because it intended to do a reinterpretation of ancient Greek and Roman art. The main artist from this movement in France were Jacques-Louis David, and his student Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
The young Delacroix also began to paint under this paradigm but began to distance himself when he first saw “The raft of the Medusa” by Theodore Gericault. From there, Delacroix began to find the inspiration from Renaissance paintings, and not from the classical art. Delacroix starts to emphasize color and movement for his paintings, and not the perfection of the line anymore.
Liberty leading the people is one of the world’s best known paintings. We see it everywhere; from commercials to pop albums (e.g “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay). It also inspired the creator of the Statue of Liberty, which was given to the U.S. by the French 50 years after Delacroix painting was finished. For art, it represents the shift from French neoclassicism to romanticism.
The work commemorates the July Revolution of 1830, which consisted of three days of clashes between civilians and the royal army of Charles X of France. The monarch had become despotic and autocratic, and plunged the people into a state of chaos and despair. Hunger, unemployment and mismanagement caused a popular uprising in which all classes participated. In the painting, in the foreground we see a female figure representing Liberty. I think it’s obvious but, just in case, we should clarify: the painting is not based on actual events. Freedom is only an allegorical figure. It would be quite unlikely for a half-naked barefoot woman to lead an armed uprising. Holding the French tricolor, she leads the revolutionary under the banner of “liberty, equality and fraternity”, while marching on top of dead soldiers from the royal army. Behind her we see the different social classes who joined the revolution: the character with the top hay represents the Parisian bourgeoisie as the young with guns represents the working class. It’s a dramatic and crude scene, in which we see the horrors of battle at the same time that it shows us the seed of a new France, free of despots. With the uprising, Charles X was replaced by Louis-Philippe, who was a more just and fair king. The throne of France was never considered a hereditary or divine right anymore: after the revolution, the king began to be elected by the people.