Liberty Leading the People, 1830

If the concept of liberty were to be embodied in human form, what would she look like? The Statue of Liberty famously presents a serene and noble image, holding aloft a torch and welcoming all who come from afar. Painter Eugène Delacroix imagined a much more dramatic casting of Lady Liberty, in “Liberty Leading the People, 1830.” Bare-chested in the heat of battle she holds the tri-color flag in one hand and a bayonet in the other.  Her clothes, the flag, even her muscles ripple with movement. The motion of the battlefield raged around her: smoke, jostling soldiers, shouts. Her feet mingle freely with the death and dirt of the ground below. It’s a captivating image. In examining this scene, though, it’s important to also consider the artist and the movement from which it emerged.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was one of the leading painters of the Romantic movement. The Romantic era in art and literature was characterized by passion, depth of feeling, individualism, and freedom. Delacroix was a master of creating drama in his paintings through his use of light and shadow, and his depiction of dynamic, impassioned scenes. He somehow managed to capture all of the senses onto the visual medium of the canvas. As Liberty leads the people, for example, audiences can almost smell the stench of death, taste the smoke, hear the cacophony of cries and shouts from the battlefield.

While Liberty is herself a symbolic figure, the events depicted in this painting are based in reality. When most people think of a French Revolution, what no doubt comes to mind first is the Revolution that raged famously at the end of the 18th century, evoking now familiar scenes of guillotines and rolling aristocratic heads. The Revolution depicted in this painting, however, took place several decades later, and marks a shorter chapter of French revolutionary history. King Charles X sparked outrage by his increasingly restrictive rule that hinted at taking the country back to the absolutism that had prompted the revolution in the first place. The Revolution of July 1830 managed to force a regime change from Charles X to Louis Philippe I under constitutional monarchy.

Even though the events of July 1830 were distinct from the more famous 1789 revolution, Delacroix’s image of “Liberty Leading the People” serves as a reminder of earlier revolution. The tricolor flag liberty waves first came into being during the early dates of the 1789 revolution. Even the cap that Liberty wears is a nod to the revolutionaries of the 1789 revolution. Liberty leads the people forward, determined that France will not slip backwards into old restrictive structures.