Eugène Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People (1830)

The first in a series considering four iconic moments in art history when artists sought to frame revolutionary ideals

By Christian Viveros-Fauné

Liberty Leading the People, 1830, oil on canvas, 260 × 325 cm. Photo: Michel Urtado. © RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum, Paris)

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) was the leading Romantic painter of his age. Besides depicting dramatic scenes from contemporary history and literature, he preferred emotional content over rationality in his paintings. His greatest artwork has been cribbed by, among others, a wildly popular Broadway musical and the British rock band Coldplay.

Behold the image of revolution made heroic. This painting, now hanging in the Louvre, represents a pivotal moment in French history – when violent protests led to the abdication of an unpopular king and his replacement by a more liberal monarch. More than that, it is the filter through which all subsequent images of world revolution are seen.

From footage of the Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace (captured ten years after the event in a filmic restaging directed by Sergei Eisenstein), to UPI photographs of Fidel Castro’s barbudos entering a liberated Havana, to more recent iPhone captures of Libyan fighters during the Arab Spring, millions of similarly romantic images celebrate the glory of armed revolution – almost as if they had been pushed through a single stencil. 

Painted by the world’s greatest romantic artist, Liberty Leading the People – like Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War (1810–20) – eschews the traditional heroic narratives of the Greek and Roman past, which up to then had dominated history painting, in favour of the heat of modern events. Delacroix began his most famous painting shortly after witnessing open warfare on the streets of Paris; he finished the more-than-three-metre-high canvas three months later, just in time to show it off at the official 1831 Salon. The mother of all revolutionary paintings – as well as Soviet-style Socialist Realism – Delacroix’s masterpiece stacks up as a morally simplified fable based on real-life events.

No wonder the monumental canvas has drawn comparisons to that other daughter of France that straddles New York Harbor. Like The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World – as the latter was christened by its maker, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, before being gifted to America in 1886 – Delacroix’s striding depiction of a half-nude Amazon is not intended to portray an actual bayonet-and-flag-wielding individual. Rather, the figure serves as an allegory of liberty plumped by the raptures of romantic aesthetic and political ideals.

Delacroix portrays Liberty’s handsome head in profile, like Queen Elizabeth II on a £1 coin; atop it she wears the Phrygian cap, or bonnet rouge, a symbol of freedom that recalls today’s ubiquitous Malcolm X tees. Surrounding her secular highness are several stock characters: a grimy-faced factory worker holding an infantry sabre (left over perhaps from a previous war), a fancy-pants bohemian sporting a hunting rifle and a schoolboy brandishing two pistols. The painting’s not-so-subtle message is that everyone can become a heroic revolutionary. The rub is that Delacroix’s lavishly idealised scenario is only humanly possible in Les Mis (1980).

When corresponding with his brother soon after completing his famous picture, Delacroix enthused: ‘I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her’. Besides confecting an up-to-date version of Peter Paul Rubens’s Consequences of War (1637–38) – without consequences, excepting the perfectly marmoreal bodies over which his revolutionaries clamber – what the Frenchman wrought was a heroic fantasy of egalitarian revolution. Myriad imitations have littered the world ever since.

From the May 2018 issue of ArtReview