Eugène Delacroix’s birthday is one of the illustrious anniversaries of the month of April. To honor him, one of the greatest artists of French romanticism, I present to you his masterpiece, Liberty Leading the People, probably his best-known artwork. The painting, which has become an icon, has already served as inspiration for much, from banknotes to a cover of a Coldplay album.
A Liberty Story
Liberty Leading the People is a painting usually associated with the July Revolution of 1830 in France. It is a large canvas showing a busty woman in the center raising a flag and holding a bayonet. She is barefoot, and walks over the bodies of the defeated, guiding a crowd around her. This is probably the most famous artwork of Eugène Delacroix, who is known as the most important artist of Romanticism.
Eugène Delacroix was a master of color and it is in Liberty Leading the People that he clearly expressed this. Carefully, Delacroix built a pulsating and dynamic scenario about an extremely current theme in his times. As he participated little in the fighting, he wrote: “If I can not fight for my country, I paint for it.”
The painting is about freedom and revolution. First, because that is exactly what it portrays. In July 1830, France rose up against King Charles X, who was extremely unpopular for, among other things, being very conservative in political terms and trying to restore an old regime that French people no longer wanted. In the artistic sense, the painting also represented a revolution – and more than that: freedom. In the time of Delacroix, painters generally obeyed the rules of the Academy of Fine Arts which stressed the mastery of drawing, disegno. Delacroix, however, put more emphasis on the use of color in an unobstructed way.
A year after its production, the painting was bought by the French Government and but was not on display for a long time. Currently, the artwork is part of the Louvre collection.
Okay, you already know that the woman in the center is Liberty. But what about the characters around her? Well, Delacroix had an illuminist formation and believed that ideals like freedom and fraternity were fundamental to building a better society. Because of this, he portrayed several social strata in this painting. On the left, he shows a simple worker alongside a bourgeois intellectual (who would be the artist himself) and on the right side a boy, symbolizing the strength of youth.
The defeated enemies on the ground and the smoke give the air that the battle is really coming to an end and that from then on freedom can take the citizens of France to a better future.
Marianne, the Allegorical Muse
The title makes it obvious, the woman represented here is the ideal of freedom. But even as an allegorical figure, the woman is more than that: her name is Marianne, which is probably the result of joining together two very common names in France at the time, Marie and Anne.
Curiously, 18 years after the July Revolution, Marie Anne Hubertine, a French activist who fought for the insertion of women in politics, was born. This is because, although the representation of freedom was feminine, women still couldn’t vote or stand for public office – although the female figure was always chosen to represent most of the allegories…
Even today there are references made to this painting: in Brazil where I live, the painting inspired the face on our currency, and it is found also in several other countries. Her face represents the republic.
And more: in 2008, the painting was chosen as an album cover for Viva La Vida by music band Coldplay!
In addition to the cover, the rock band also produced an alternative clip for the title song where the lead singer represents a king (maybe Charles X?) and he sings “I used to rule the world, I would rise when I gave the word. Now in the morning I sleep alone, sweep the streets I used to own” while we see the picture of Delacroix all the time. It seems that the Romantic painting and the dream of the French artist still can inspire us even today.
Find out more about Eugène Delacroix: