Liberty Leading the People (French: La Liberté guidant le peuple [la libɛʁte ɡidɑ̃ lə pœpl]) is a painting by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830, which toppled King Charles X of France. A woman of the people with a Phrygian cap personifying the concept of Liberty leads a varied group of people forward over a barricade and the bodies of the fallen, holding the flag of the French Revolution – the tricolour, which again became France’s national flag after these events – in one hand and brandishing a bayonetted musket with the other. The figure of Liberty is also viewed as a symbol of France and the French Republic known as Marianne.
By the time Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People, he was already the acknowledged leader of the Romantic school in French painting.Delacroix, who was born as the Age of Enlightenment was giving way to the ideas and style of romanticism, rejected the emphasis on precise drawing that characterised the academic art of his time, and instead gave a new prominence to freely brushed colour.
Delacroix painted his work in the autumn of 1830. In a letter to his brother dated 21 October, he wrote: “My bad mood is vanishing thanks to hard work. I’ve embarked on a modern subject—a barricade. And if I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her.” The painting was first exhibited at the official Salon of 1831.
Delacroix depicted Liberty as both an allegorical goddess-figure and a robust woman of the people. The mound of corpses acts as a kind of pedestal from which Liberty strides, barefoot and bare-breasted, out of the canvas and into the space of the viewer. The Phrygian cap she wears had come to symbolize liberty during the first French Revolution, of 1789. The painting has been seen as a marker to the end of the Age of Enlightenment, as many scholars see the end of the French Revolution as the start of the romantic era.
The fighters are from a mixture of social classes, ranging from the bourgeoisie represented by the young man in a top hat, a student from the prestigious École Polytechnique wearing the traditional bicorne, to the revolutionary urban worker, as exemplified by the boy holding pistols. What they have in common is the fierceness and determination in their eyes. Aside from the flag held by Liberty, a second, minute tricolore can be discerned in the distance flying from the towers of Notre Dame.
The identity of the man in the top hat has been widely debated. The suggestion that it was a self-portrait by Delacroix has been discounted by modern art historians.In the late 19th century, it was suggested the model was the theatre director Étienne Arago; others have suggested the future curator of the Louvre, Frédéric Villot but there is no firm consensus on this point.
Several of the figures are probably borrowed from a print by popular artist Nicolas Charlet, a prolific illustrator who Delacroix believed captured, more than anyone else, the peculiar energy of the Parisians.
Purchase and exhibition
The French government bought the painting in 1831 for 3,000 francs with the intention of displaying it in the throne room of the Palais du Luxembourg as a reminder to the “citizen-king” Louis-Philippe of the July Revolution, through which he had come to power. This plan did not come to fruition and the canvas hung in the palace’s museum gallery for a few months, before being removed due to its inflammatory political message. After the June Rebellion of 1832, it was returned to the artist. According to Albert Boime,
Champfleury wrote in August 1848 that it had been “hidden in an attic for being too revolutionary.” Although Louis-Philippe’s Ministry of the Interior initially acquired it as a gesture to the Left, after the uprising at the funeral of Lamarque in June 1832 it was never again openly displayed for fear of setting a bad example.
Delacroix was permitted to send the painting to his aunt Félicité for safekeeping. It was exhibited briefly in 1848, after the Republic was restored in the revolution of that year, and then in the Salon of 1855. In 1874, the painting entered the collection of Palais du Louvre in Paris.
In 1974–75, the work was the featured work in an exhibit organized by the French government, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Detroit Institute of Arts as a Bicentennial gift to the people of the United States. The exhibit, entitled French Painting 1774–1830: The Age of Revolution, marked a rare display of the Delacroix painting, and many of the other 148 works, outside France. The exhibit was first shown at the Grand Palais from 16 November 1974 to 3 February 1975. It moved to Detroit from 5 March to 4 May 1975, then New York from 12 June to 7 September 1975.
In 1999, it was flown on board an Airbus Beluga from Paris to Tokyo via Bahrain and Calcutta in about 20 hours. The large canvas, measuring 2.99 metres (9.8 feet) high by 3.62 metres (11.9 feet) long, was too large to fit into a Boeing 747. It was transported in the vertical position inside a special pressurised container provided with isothermal protection and an anti-vibration device.
In 2012, it was moved to the new Louvre-Lens museum in Lens, Pas-de-Calais, as the starring work in the first tranche of paintings from the Louvre’s collection to be installed. On 7 February 2013, the painting was vandalized by a visitor in Lens. An unidentified 28-year-old woman allegedly wrote an inscription (“AE911”) on the painting. The woman was immediately arrested by a security guard and a visitor. A short time after the incident, the management of the Louvre and its Pas-de-Calais branch published a press release indicating that “at first glance, the inscription is superficial and should be easily removed”. Louvre officials announced the next day that the writing had been removed in less than two hours by a restorer without damaging the original paint, and the piece returned to display that morning
In 1880, the state commissioned a canvas from the painter Alfred-Philippe Roll to commemorate the first official celebration of Bastille Day.
The government had just adopted the anniversaries of the fall of the Bastille (14 July 1789) and the fête de la Fédération (14 July 1790, celebrating the constitutional monarchy in France). To mark this occasion, a plaster model of the statue by the Morice brothers, which was still being created, was erected on the place de la République.
Roll painted a huge canvas measuring 63 m2 which was completed for the Salon of 1882 and donated to the City of Paris in 1884. The work is now preserved in the Petit Palais. This monumental painting was the subject of many preparatory studies, including this large sketch with broad areas of colour demonstrating the artist’s fondness for light and movement.
A panorama of working-class joy, this commission is in keeping with Roll’s large naturalist compositions: The Miners’ Strike, 1880 (Valenciennes Museum) and Work, 1885 (Cognac Museum). This painter of modern life had a feel for crowds. He considered that a good portrait consisted of a lively figure placed in a social context. His Bastille Day with band, dancers, street vendors and passers-by cheering the military parade demonstrates this to spectacular effect.