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.