La Liberté guidant le peuple
Liberty Leading the People (1830) is a celebrated painting by Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). The thematic content of La Liberté guidant le peuple, with its appropriation of narrative from the 1789 French Revolution, can be considered as typical of the Romantic movement in art.
The central conceit is that the "free people" have a heroic leader. The central figure has been commonly intepreted as the iconic image of a triumphant French republic. The politically conservative Delacroix, may not have entirely sympathised with the Paris mob, but insofar as he was a Romantic painter he sought to represent the the actions of a popular movement. Around the centre is constructed the scene that occurred on 28th July 1830 during the Paris Revolt in the centre of the 19th century metropolis. The political upheaval eventually resulted in the overthrow of the reigning monarch Charles X, the brother of the beheaded Louis XVI, who had re-established the Bourbon throne after the fall of Napoleon, in favour of the restricted constitutional rule of Louis-Phillipe, the "citizen-king." On October 12, 1830 Delacroix wrote to his brother Charles,
"J'ai entrepris un sujet moderne, une barricade, et si je n'ai pas vaincu pour la patrie, au moins peindrai-je pour elle. Cela m'a remis de belle humeur."
"My bad mood is vanishing thanks to hard work. I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and if I have not fought for my country, at least I will paint for her."
He worked on the canvas from October until early December, eventually signing his name on two spars of wood on the right. The dark background of the canvases, was worked on with his palette of vibrant colours to get the desired effect, creating a complex interaction between areas that are brightly reflective and adjacent areas of dark shadow. Brilliant and shocking traces of pure pigment were applied, with stand-out, sharp primary colours, blues, yellows and central to the canvas, and the mood of the scene, especially powerful reds.
Liberty, the main female figure is composed just right to the centre of the painting, rushing forward, triumphantly, over the piled debris of the barricades, with the tricolour flag in her raised right hand. Around her, a crowd dissolves into the smoke and the overall confusion of the scene. A pistol is held aloft by a boy running forward, guns in both hands, highlighted by the gunsmoke, as the battle is joined in the distance. On the other side of her, Delacroix depicts two figures with great clarity. A man in the top hat, waistcoat and jacket; a costume represents nothing more than the middle class; ready to join the revolution, his top hat skewed alarmingly, and with his musket/rifle clutched in a brave pose. The second figure on this side is less well off. He wears a white shirt and cap and is meant to represent a labourer, a member of the working or lower class. Off in the background, Notre Dame de Paris, a symbol of the King's power, flies the tricolour flag, in victory. The republican tricolore replaced the solid white flag in use during the Bourbon restoration. The towering Gothic cathedral is of course, a stand-in for the established values of religion and of social order.
- 1886 - It inspired in part gift of the Statue of Liberty Statue de la Liberté, New York City, presented to the United States by the people of France, which welcomes visitors, immigrants, and returning Americans travelling by ship, with its raised torch held in hand - although the actual symbolism e.g., the torch is drawn from other sources.
- 1947 to 1948 - George Antheil titled his Symphony No. 6 After Delacroix, and stated that the work was inspired by his viewing of a copy of La Liberté guidant le peuple.
- 2008 - It is featured in the artwork for Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends by the British group Coldplay.