Liberty Leading the People (1830) by Eugene Delacroix
Interpretation of Romantic History Painting

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Liberty Leading the People
(detail) By Delacroix.
Regarded as one of the
greatest modern paintings of
the nineteenth century.

Liberty Leading the People (1830)


Analysis of Liberty Leading the People
Interpretation of Other 19th Century Paintings


Name: Liberty Leading the People (La Liberté guidant le peuple) (1830)
Artist: Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: History painting
Movement: Romanticism
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


A major influence on 19th century French painting, Delacroix became one of the greatest romantic artists, with works like The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) and Liberty Leading the People (1830). However, he was also greatly influenced by Old Masters like Paolo Veronese (1528-88) and Rubens (1577-1640), as well as more recent painters such as Goya (1746-1828). In reality, his romantic expressiveness actually consisted of a combination of classically modelled figure painting, Baroque colour, and gritty realism. A regular traveller he assimilated colours and motifs from North Africa and Spain. In addition, his meetings with the English masters John Constable (1776-1837) and Turner (1775-1851) helped him to move away from the exact drawing which underpinned academic art and adopt a looser, more colourful brushwork. Liberty Leading the People is both a political and allegorical work. An important deviation from the neoclassicism of the day, it exemplifies French Romanticism - itself a stepping stone to the realist painting of Gustave Courbet (1819-77) as well as the symbolism of Gustave Moreau (1826-1898).

Analysis of Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix

Painted between October and December 1830, this work commemorates the July Revolution of 1830, which overthrew King Charles X of France and brought his cousin Louis-Philippe I to power. First exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1831, the composition shows the allegorical figure of Liberty (known as Marianne, national symbol of the French Republic) leading the people to victory over the bodies of their fallen comrades. In one hand she holds aloft the Tricolour; in the other she grips a musket complete with fixed bayonet. First and foremost a political work, it caused a commotion at the Salon, and, although quickly purchased by Louis-Philippe to mark his accession, it was kept hidden from the public owing to its inflammatory and seditious nature.



This iconic snapshot of populist Revolution owes its success to a combination of elements, in particular, the clever juxtaposition of allegory with gritty detail. (Note: For a wholly bogus depiction of a political event, see Death of Marat by David.) The silhouette of Notre Dame Cathedral is visible in the background, while the rebels are from a mixture of social classes, and largely identifiable by their clothes and weaponry. For instance, the man waving a sabre is a factory worker; the top-hatted figure holding a gun is a bourgeois (a student, perhaps, or an artisan or foreman), and the man on his knees - who sports the three colours - is a worker from the countryside, probably a builder. In the background, a Polytechnicien, whose school distinguished itself in the rebellion, is wearing his typical cocked hat. And the two dead soldiers in the foreground are wearing the uniforms of the regiments of royal troops combatting the insurrection, a Swiss guard and a cavalryman. As for the small boy, he is frequently associated with Victor Hugo's "Gavroche" in "Les Miserables", although the book was published more than twenty years after the painting was produced.

The outsize figure of Liberty dominates the scene, but Delacroix caused a scandal by depicting her not as a beautiful, idealized woman - a modern-day Joan of Arc perhaps - but as a grimy, half-naked and muscular activist stepping over corpses without a second glance. (Salon visitors described her as a fishwife or even a prostitute.) As it was, her naturalistic posture was Delacroix's way of injecting a timeless, allegorical motif (the female nude) into the composition, (as well as evoking the sans-culottes of the French Revolution) thus imbuing his heroine with a double significance. She is both history and allegory: both a young revolutionary and a symbol of liberty. After all, true allegory has the quality of being at the same time a living type as well as a symbol.

Some art critics have claimed that Delacroix drew his inspiration for his Liberty from the statue of the Venus de Milo, which had only recently been discovered and was then on display in the Louvre. This would further underline the Classicism of the composition's main character, which is already suggested by several things, including: Liberty's yellow dress reminiscent of classical drapery; the red Phrygian cap on her head, and the corpse with arms outstretched (left foreground) which derives from a classical male nude model known as Hector. (Note: Scientific analysis shows that Liberty's cap was originally a brighter red, but was toned down by Delacroix, probably for political reasons.)

Liberty's waving of the Tricolour Flag was especially populist - indeed the new July Monarchy took as its emblem the revolutionary and republican Tricolour instead of the white flag of the Bourbons, thus clearly indicating that the new regime would accept the changes brought about by the Revolution, rather than seek a return to pre-1789 France (which had been Charles X's intention).

The composition is also characterized by Delacroix's skilful use of colour; the white of the broad straps across the shoulders of the rebels (extreme left and right) echoes that of the gaiters, the shirt on the body (front left) and the uniform cuff (front right corner), while the overall grey tone of the canvas accentuates the red of the flag.

On instructions from Louis-Philippe, Liberty Leading the People was bought by the French Ministry of the Interior (for 3,000 francs) as a sop to the liberal left. The original idea was to display it in the throne room of the Palais du Luxembourg, but instead it was kept in the palace's museum gallery. Following the June Rebellion of 1832, it was returned to the artist. On his death in 1863 it was reacquired by the Musee du Luxembourg who in 1874 passed it to the Louvre. The picture is believed to have inspired Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty (1870-86) - a depiction of Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom - which was given to the United States as a gift from the French people. Today it is considered to be a universal work symbolizing the triumph of the 'popular will', and an important forerunner of 20th century works like Picasso's Guernica (1937, Reina Sofia Art Museum, Madrid).

Interpretation of Other 19th Century Paintings

The Third of May, 1808 (1814) by Goya.
Prado Museum, Madrid.

The Colossus (1808-12) by Goya.
Prado Museum, Madrid.

The Valpincon Bather (1808) by J.A.D. Ingres
Louvre, Paris.

La Grand Odalisque (1814) by J.A.D. Ingres
Louvre, Paris.

A Burial at Ornans (1850) by Gustave Courbet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

The Artist's Studio (1855) by Gustave Courbet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

• For analysis of other 19th century history paintings, see: Homepage.

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