Daily Dose of Europe: Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

The sight of mass protests — people striving for change and the betterment of society — always gets me thinking about Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. While the specifics are different, both this painting and the current Black Lives Matter movement are united by a striving for justice and liberty for all citizens…not just the privileged and elite. And both show how people from all walks of society can be united in one voice.

Lady Liberty, carrying the French flag, represents the ongoing struggle and relentless quest for freedom. Nicknamed “Marianne,” she is often seen as the symbol of the French Revolution of 1789, though this painting depicts a later revolution.

It’s Paris. The year is 1830. King Charles X had just suspended civil liberties, and his subjects were angry. The Parisians have taken to the streets once again to fight their oppressors. Eugène Delacroix witnessed the events during those “Three Glorious Days” of revolution, and began composing this work.

The people have taken up arms and erected a barricade in a street near Notre-Dame (in the background). Guns blaze, smoke billows, and bodies fall. Every social class is involved: the hard-bitten proletarian with a sword, an intellectual with a top hat and a sawed-off shotgun, and even a little boy brandishing pistols. Leading them on through the smoke and over the dead and dying is the figure of Liberty, a fearless woman waving the French flag.

Delacroix packed the painting with symbols. To stir the emotions, Delacroix concentrates on the three major colors — the red, white, and blue of the French tricolore. Lady Liberty’s pose is classic, patterned after the ancient goddess Libertas. But instead of a torch and staff, this secular goddess brandishes a flag and a gun. She sports a red “Phrygian cap,” the bandana worn by 1789 revolutionaries.

Delacroix’s painting epitomizes a controversial new style — Romanticism. The canvas is epic in scale (12′ × 10′), the colors bold, and the scene emotional, charged with rippling energy.

The July Revolution of 1830 was a success, and the people toppled their despotic king. Delacroix’s painting was hailed as an instant classic, a symbol of French democracy.

However, the struggle didn’t end there. They’d only replaced one despot with another less-repressive king. For the next few decades, French radicals continued to battle monarchists in pursuit of full democracy (including the 1832 revolt dramatized in Les Misérables). Delacroix’s painting with its inflammatory message had to go underground, and was rarely exhibited in public. But it inspired his fellow lovers of liberty, like Victor Hugo. It may have influenced another French artist, Frederic-Auguste Bartoldi, in his imagery of the Statue of Liberty. Finally in 1874, the political winds were right for it to take its place in the halls of the Louvre.

The painting was born in an era when many still believed that some were born to rule, ordained by God, while others were fated to be ruled. Delacroix stirred France’s passion for liberty. To this day his painting symbolizes the never-ending struggle of the common rabble who long for “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” — “Liberty, Equality, and the Brotherhood of All.” And that cry for liberty, equality, and brotherhood still rings on our streets today.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe.

Daily Dose of Europe: Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa

A glimmer of hope in a time of crisis…this painting feels made for our current time.

The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Here’s one of my favorites.

In 1816, the French ship Medusa went down off the coast of Africa, and the tragedy gripped the nation. Accounts poured in of the unspeakable hardships these French citizens suffered.

In Paris, the young artist Théodore Géricault began chronicling the tragic event. Like a method actor, he immersed himself in the project. He interviewed survivors and honed his craft sketching dead bodies in the morgue and the twisted faces of lunatics in asylums. He shaved his head and worked alone, wallowing in the very emotions he wanted to portray.

He captured the moment when all hope seemed lost.

Clinging to a raft in the midst of a storm-tossed sea is a tangle of bodies sprawled over each other. The scene is alive with agitated, ominous motion — the ripple of muscles, churning clouds, and choppy waves. The rickety raft is nearly swamped. The dark colors — dull green seas, dark brown raft, and ghostly flesh — are as drained of life as the survivors’ spirits. On the right is a deathly green corpse dangling overboard. Of the 150 people who originally packed onto the raft, only these few remained. They floated in the open seas for almost two weeks — suffering unimaginable hardship and hunger, even resorting to cannibalism. The face of the old man on the left, cradling his dead son, says it all — it’s hopeless.

But wait!

There’s a stir in the crowd. Someone has spotted something. The bodies rise up in a pyramid of hope. The diagonal motion culminates in a waving flag. They wave frantically, trying to catch the attention of something on the horizon, their last desperate hope. It’s a tiny ship — the ship that did finally rescue them and bring the 15 survivors home.

For months, Géricault worked feverishly on this giant canvas. When he emerged, it captured the traumatized mood of a French nation still in mourning. Géricault had also revolutionized art, paving the way for a bold new style — Romanticism. His contemporaries were still following the Neoclassical tradition of idealized gods and Greek-statues-on-canvas. Géricault shattered the mold, adding a gritty realism and super-ultra-mega-heightened emotion. What better story than this shipwreck to shock and awe the public? In the artistic war between hearts and minds, Géricault’s Romantic style went straight to the heart. He used rippling movement, strong shadows, and powerful colors to catch us up in the excitement. If art controls your heartbeat, this is a masterpiece.

It also sounded another trumpet of the Romantic movement. Ultimately, it championed the godlike heroism of ordinary people who rise above their suffering to survive.

This art moment — a sampling of what we try to incorporate in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Lourve.

Daily Dose of Europe: Rigaud’s Louis XIV

In this age of austerity, the opulence of the Palace of Versailles seems more over-the-top than ever. And that’s all because of the giant ego and extravagant personal style of one man: Louis XIV.

The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Here’s one of my favorites.

The official portrait of the King of France shows a 63-year-old man at the peak of his power. He wears the coronation robe — a luxuriant blue, white, and gold garment — and stands amid the royal regalia: the red-canopied throne, the crown, and the sword of Charlemagne on his hip. This is the ultimate image of a divine-right ruler — a king who could rule unchecked by the laws of man, and whose authority came directly from God.

It’s the year 1701, when France was Europe’s most powerful country. Louis’ lavish palace of Versailles trumpets his divine power. Louis is the “Sun King,” tracing his divine authority back even to the classical god Apollo. He’s Europe’s king of kings, the absolute example of an absolute monarch. Louis summed it up best himself with his famous rhyme, “L’état, c’est moi!” (lay-tah say mwah): “The state, that’s me!”

Rigaud captures all the splendor, but he also gives a peek at the flesh-and-blood man beneath the royal robe. Louis, striking a jaunty pose, turns out to meet the viewer’s gaze. He puts one hand on his hip and balances the other nonchalantly atop his cane — oh wait, that’s actually the royal scepter, which he’s playfully turned on its head. Louis tosses his robe over his shoulder, revealing his athletic legs. Louis loved to dance, and even as an old man, he looked good in tights.

In fact, Louis’ subjects adored him. He was polite and approachable, and could put commoners at ease with a joke. He was everything a man could aspire to be: good-looking, an accomplished guitar player, a fine horseman, witty conversationalist, statesman, art lover, and lover of women.

Rigaud shows Louis at his best. The painting is nine feet tall, so Louis is fully life-size, and positioned so this not-so-tall man (5’5”) can literally look down on us. Louis’ robed body forms an imposing pyramid turned at three-quarter angle, placed in the center of a rectangular frame. Louis’ face is age-appropriate: handsome, but realistically doughy and double-chinned. Every detail is immaculate, from the texture of the fabrics to the ruffled curtains to his jeweled necklace. Rigaud’s painting was so realistic, it served as Louis’ body-double in the throne room whenever the king was away.

Louis is dressed to kill. He was Europe’s great trendsetter. His blue robe, embroidered with gold fleur-de-lis, is turned out to show off the white ermine lining. His “everyday” clothes were soon seen throughout Europe: a delicate lace cravat (on his chest), matching lace cuffs, poofy breeches for pants, silk stockings, and square-toed shoes with Louis’ fashion signature — red heels.

And the hair! Louis once had flowing curls down his shoulders, but as he aged, he took to wigs — more than 300 of them. This one has twin peaks parted down the middle, and it stretched to his waist. Thanks to Louis, big-hair wigs became trendy. (“Bigwigs” everywhere wore them.)

Even this portrait by Rigaud set trends. Louis-wannabe’s in palaces throughout Europe struck similar poses with similar clothes. But none could match the original Sun King. Louis XIV was the fullest expression of the divine monarch: an accomplished man who embodied a god on earth.

This art moment — a sampling of what we try to incorporate in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Louis.

Daily Dose of Europe: Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral

The crisis of this year has overshadowed one from last year: the shocking fire at France’s top church, Notre-Dame Cathedral. Like the rest of our world right now, that cathedral is damaged and on the mend…yet it survives, as ever, as a powerful symbol of France.

The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. And I’m currently featuring 10 of my favorites — including this one.

On an island in the center of Paris — on the spot dubbed “point zero” — stands the world’s best-known Gothic cathedral. Notre-Dame’s facade is instantly recognizable: the twin rectangular towers, the circular rose window, the three arched doorways, the rows of statues…and the impish gargoyles that line the roof.

The round rose window frames a statue of “Our Lady” (Notre Dame) to whom this church is dedicated. For centuries, Mary, the mother of Jesus, has symbolized the Christian faith’s compassionate heart. And here she stands at the heart of the facade, surrounded by the halo of the rose window. And this church stands at the heart of Paris, where the ancient Parisii tribe settled, where Romans built their pagan Temple of Jupiter, and where the Franks replaced it with a Christian church.

Imagine the faith of the people who built this massive cathedral. Countless people of high and low standing dedicated their lives to building this church, knowing it wouldn’t be finished until long after they were dead. They broke ground in the year 1163 with the hope that someday their great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren might attend the dedication Mass. Two centuries later, in 1345, they did.

Over the centuries, the cathedral continued to evolve and undergo renovation. Recently it suffered a devastating fire (2019), requiring yet another makeover, and adding another chapter to its long history.

Stepping inside, put on a medieval pilgrim’s perspective as you soak in the ambience of this centuries-old space. Follow the slender columns up 10 stories to where Gothic arches come together like praying hands. Take in the subtle, mysterious light show that God beams through the stained-glass windows.

This is Gothic. Taller and filled with light, this was a new design needing only a few load-bearing columns, topped by crisscrossing pointed arches to support the weight of the stone roof. No longer did walls have to be thick and fortress-like to provide support — instead they could be filled with windows.

Back outside Notre-Dame, you see the gangly architectural elements of Gothic: pointed arches, tall windows, lacy stone tracery, and statues.

Most distinctive of all are the flying buttresses, the 50-foot-long stone beams that stick out from the church. They were the key to the Gothic structure. With pointed arches supporting the roof, the weight of the roof pressed outward, not down (as with earlier round arches). Flying buttresses supported that weight by pushing back in. This Gothic technology, with its skeletal structure mostly protruding on the outside, was invented in Paris in the 13th century. It enabled architects to erect lofty cathedrals with roofs supported by thin columns, allowing for “walls” of glorious stained glass.

The church’s roofline is dotted with statues of grotesque winged creatures. These bizarre beasts represented tormented souls caught between heaven and earth. They also functioned as drain spouts. When it rained, they made a gargling sound, giving us their name — gargoyles. Or maybe that’s the sound of Quasimodo as he limps along the roofline, grunting and grimacing with appreciation at this, the wonder of the High Middle Ages.

This is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for “Notre Dame”.

Daily Dose of Europe: Champs-Elysées: The Parisian Promenade

I have a ritual when in Paris. I ask my cabbie to take me around the Arc de Triomphe two times, then drop me off to stroll down the city’s grand boulevard, the Champs-Elysées.

Even if we’ve had to postpone trips to Europe, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.

We plunge into the grand traffic circle where a dozen venerable boulevards converge on the mightiest of triumphal arches. Like referees at gladiator camp, traffic cops are stationed at each entrance to this traffic circus, letting in bursts of eager cars.

In the mid-19th century, Baron Haussmann set out to make Paris the grandest city in Europe. The 12 arterials that radiate from the Arc de Triomphe were part of his master plan: the creation of a series of major boulevards, intersecting at diagonals, with monuments (such as the Arc de Triomphe) as centerpieces. As we careen around the chaotic circle, I wonder what Haussmann would think of the scene today.

Each visit here reminds me of the greatness of France. As the marble relief of Lady Liberty scrambles up the arch Napoleon ordered built, heroically thrusting her sword and shrieking at the traffic, all of Paris seems drawn into this whirlpool. Being immersed in this scene with my cabbie so in control always makes me laugh out loud.

The commotion of cars fights to get to the arch at the center as if to pay homage to the national spirit of France. Cars entering the circle have the right-of-way; those already in the circle must yield. Parisian drivers navigate the circle like roller derby queens. Tippy little Citroën 2CVs, their rooftops cranked open like sardine lids, bring lumbering buses to a sudden, cussing halt. It’s a game of fender-bender chicken.

On this visit, after barely avoiding an accident, my cabbie calms me, saying, “In Paris, a good driver gets only scratches, not dents.” Groping for the lost end of my seatbelt, I say, “There must be an accident here every few minutes.” He explains, “In the case of an accident here, each driver is considered equally at fault. This is the only place in Paris where the accidents are not judged. No matter what the circumstances, insurance companies split the costs 50-50.” While we’re momentarily stalled on the inside lane, I pay and hop out.

I’m ready for my stroll on the Champs-Elysées. I like to say it out loud: shahn-zay-lee-zay. This grandest of boulevards is Paris at its most Parisian: sprawling sidewalks, stylish octogenarians caked in makeup, concept cars glimmering in showroom windows, and pastel macarons in grand cafés.

Paris’ characteristic love of strolling (a stately paced triathlon of walking, window-shopping, and high-profile sipping) dates from the booming 19th century, with its abundance of upper-class leisure time and cash. Donning an aristocratic air, I amble gently downhill to the immense and historic square called the Place de la Concorde.

Even small-town French kids who haven’t traveled beyond a TV screen know that this boulevard is their country’s ultimate parade ground, where major events unfold: the Tour de France finale, Bastille Day parades, and New Year’s festivities.

In 1667, Louis XIV opened the first stretch of the Champs-Elysées: a short extension of the Tuileries Gardens leading to the palace at Versailles. Many consider this moment to be the birth of Paris as a grand city. The Champs-Elysées soon became the place to cruise in your carriage. It still is today — traffic can be jammed up even at midnight.

A century after Louis XIV, the café scene arrived. Cafés were ideal for both Parisian pleasure-seekers and thinkers, conspiring to share ideas and plot revolutions. That coffee-sipping ambience survives today, amid pop-clothing outlets and music megastores. Two cafés, Le Fouquet’s and Ladurée, are among the most venerable in Paris.

Le Fouquet’s started as a coachman’s bistro. Then it gained fame as the hangout of French biplane pilots during World War I, when Paris was just a few nervous miles from the Western Front. Today, it’s pretty stuffy — unless you’re a film star. The golden plaques at the entrance honor winners of France’s version of our Oscars, the Césars. While I find the interior intimidating, the people-watching from the sidewalk tables makes the most expensive espresso I’ve found in Paris a good value.

You’re more likely to see me hanging out at Ladurée, working delicately through an Oreo-sized macaron with fine silverware. This classic 19th-century tea salon and pastry shop has an interior right out of the 1860s. The bakery makes traditional macarons with a pastel palette of flavors, ranging from lavender and raspberry to rose. Get a frilly little gift box to go, or pay the ransom and sit down and enjoy the Champs-Elysées show in sweet style.

Until the 1960s, the boulevard was pure Parisian elegance, lined with top-end hotels, cafés, and residences. Locals actually dressed up to stroll here. Then, in 1963, the government, wanting to pump up the neighborhood’s commercial metabolism, brought in the Métro to connect the Champs-Elysées with the suburbs. Suddenly, the working class had easy access. And bam — there goes the neighborhood.

The arrival of McDonald’s was another shock. At first it was allowed only white arches painted on the window. Today, the hamburger joint spills out onto the sidewalk with café-quality chairs and stylish flower boxes.

As fast food and pop culture invaded and grand old buildings began to fall, Paris realized what it was losing. In 1985, a law prohibited the demolition of the classy facades that once gave this boulevard a uniform grace. Consequently, many of today’s modern businesses hide behind 19th-century facades.

The nouvelle Champs-Elysées, revitalized in 1994, has new street benches, lamps, and an army of green-suited workers armed with high-tech pooper scoopers. Two lanes of traffic were traded away to make broader sidewalks. And plane trees (a kind of sycamore that thrives despite big-city pollution) provide a leafy ambience.

As I stroll, I notice the French appetite for a good time. The foyer of the famous Lido, Paris’ largest cabaret, comes with leggy photos and a perky R-rated promo video.

The nearby Club Med building is a reminder of the French commitment to vacation. Since 1936, France’s employees, by law, have enjoyed one month of paid vacation. The French, who now have five weeks of paid vacation, make sure they have plenty of time for leisure.

On the Champs-Elysées, the shopping ends and the park begins at a big traffic circle called Rond-Point. From here, it’s a straight shot down the last stretch of the boulevard to the sprawling square called the Place de la Concorde. Its centerpiece was once the bloody guillotine but is now the 3,300-year-old Obelisk of Luxor. It was shipped here from Egypt in the 1830s, a gift to the French king.

I stand in the shadow of that obelisk with my back to the Louvre, once Europe’s grandest palace, and now its grandest museum. Looking up this ultimate boulevard to the Arc de Triomphe, I can’t help but think of the sweep of French history…and the taste of those delightful macarons.

(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. It’s coming out in July, and available for pre-order.)