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Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People

By pgervasio May 18, 2010 2158 Words
Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People An expression of tumultuous times
As a superior example of the style associated with Romanticism, prevalent in the first half of the nineteenth-century in which imagination and the illustration of literary themes played dominant roles, Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830, oil on canvas) symbolizes the events of his own time, the popular resistance against repression and tyranny during the Parisian Revolution of July 1830. Delacroix’s technique was applying contrasting colors, creating a vibrant effect with small brush strokes. In Liberty Leading the People, Delacroix made no attempt to represent realistically a specific episode; instead, he depicted the main figure in this painting, a partly nude, regal woman whose striking features wear an expression of noble poise, symbolizes liberty as numerous armed citizens rushing forward toward unseen barricades, a very familiar revolutionary image associated with the streets of Paris. Liberty herself, wearing the cap of liberty, carries the tricolor banner of the French Republic and a musket with bayonet as she advances over the dead and dying bodies of her supporters and the royal French troops Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix was born on April 26, 1798. He was the son of the ambassador of the French Republic to Holland. His father had been very active during the revolution and in spite of his parents dying when he was a young boy, he would be very aware of the revolution and the terror that reigned afterwards. At the age of seventeen Delacroix began to take painting lessons from Pierre Guerin and while there he met Theodore Gericault, a romantic painter, whom Delacroix became heavily influenced by (Agulhon 38-42). He was hugely influenced by the Romantic period of painting and due to his use of colors, Delacroix influenced both neo-impressionist and impressionist painters which made him known for his enthusiastic colors and sweeping themes, particularly Cezanne and Picasso, who copied his paintings. According to the book Painting in the Louvre by Lawrence Gowing “romanticism is a movement that arose in the early nineteenth century in art, literature, and music.” Romantic paintings were characterized by emotionalism and fascination with the exotic. Some principles of Romanticism are the emphasis on feelings, especially on personal feelings, like love affairs, illness, duels, suicides, and madness rather than general or community feelings. Another emphasis was on emotion rather than reason but the main feeling of many Romantic artists was on nationalism (Gowing 697-710).

Delacroix’s first painting, The Barque of Dante, was accepted by the Paris Salon in 1822 and marked the beginning of his artistic career (Gowing 697-710). His painting Liberty Leading the People is one of the most famous and radical picture of its time, a sort of work that at first glance just captures the viewer’s eye through its dynamic subject (Agulhon 38-42). This painting is associated with the advance towards the uprising, focusing on the willpower, promise and intellectual strength that forced the working middle class of France to get to their destination by changing their destiny (John C. 678-679). Delacroix once wrote to his brother (a general) “Since I have not fought and conquered for the fatherland I can at least paint on its behalf” (Néret 21). That’s why he painted Liberty Leading the People. His attitude toward social reform was basically detached and laisseiz-faire and when everyone’s concern had become politics Delacroix’s attention was quickly turned by the political crisis in France. Most of Delacroix’s canvases are dark in background against the vibrant colors to get the desired, visually stimulant effect. Delacroix made a number of sketches. They contained street fighters, individually and in groups, but he decided to construct his artwork around the symbolic female representing Liberty (Johnson 691-701). This was a bold theory which had the bloodstained victims of an actual battle and setting a high-flown symbolic figure in the middle of the dirt. This painting is a triangularly composed work with figures put mainly in two categories, the figures just lying dead in the foreground in the left-lower triangle of the canvas and the dynamically marching figures on the top-left triangle (Gowing, Ringbom 697-710, 270). Apart from this division, the main female figure is composed just right to the center of the painting with the French flag balanced exactly in the middle of the frame. This composition itself shows the main figure with the flag, the determination of the cause; the uprising and the struggle to achieve it placed her high in the picture (Agulhon 38-42). With a gun in her left lowering hand and the tricolor flag in the right rising hand show the hype and importance of the woman. Tricolor flag also harmonized with the triangular composition (three colors, three sides) (John C. 678-679). The lively lines used by him in this work suggest the conflict that was present at that time. The uprising is denoted by the movement of lines coming upward from dark bottom part of the canvas (John C. 678-679). The contrast of dynamic and static lines has put an interesting study in the painting as the foreground with people lying dead represent the horizontality of the area which is without any movement and providing space for the main female figure, who is a “curvy, live and vertical linear representation of the energy and effort she is putting in but the upright posture again manifest the straightness and affirmation of the intention behind the effort” (Néret 23). The space is two-dimensional but uses a sense of depth of three-dimensional space by the means of illusions. Delacroix uses linear perspective to give the effect of 3-dimensional space. This is done by the objects closer to us appear larger than the objects farther away. Another way to show the illusion of three-dimensional space is having the objects closer to us overlaps or covers the objects behind them (Ringbom 270). This is how Delacroix used to show depth. He uses atmospheric perspective with the “hazy sky and the buildings in the city being a very cool color which makes the style of this work very realistic” (Agulhon 39). Liberty Leading the People is sort of a political poster, it’s the ‘No Poll Tax’ poster of its time. It marks the day when the people rose and dethroned the Bourbon King (Hamilton 55-66). Line can imply direction and movement but also outline shapes and forms. Most of the figures are outlined with a black line and some are a little thicker than others. The flag and the clouds are treated in the same wavy outlines giving a sense of movement, as the flag and clouds are linked here for the representation of the liveliness and protectiveness of the cause (Johnson 691-701). The total environment of the painting suggests the change from “static, mournful and depressed life to lively, colorful and energetic one” (Agulhon 38-42). With implied line you can get the direction and where someone is looking. Liberty is looking at the man wearing the top hat. The man holding himself up is looking at Liberty. Delacroix’s lines are “quick, fluid and imprecise, flurry of curves, linear webs and knots.” The medium used allows for the blending of the shading. No hatching or cross-hatching was used (John C. 678-679). The upper portion of the painting physically stands for the goals that are to be achieved after all the effort. The uprising is rendered physically by the upper portion and the deteriorated condition from which the revolt erupted, is shown by the lower dark part of the frame (Hamilton 55-66). The Colors used in the painting correspond to the dark foreground with dead bodies and as we go upward, there is light, brightness and sharpness in hues (Johnson 691-701). This treatment of colors is the representation of an uprising as darkness represents the “gloomy, sorrowful and regretful” attitude towards life while the sharp and bright colors on the upper portion suggest the change. Objects that are farther away appear less distinct and are often bluer in color or cooler (Hamilton 55-66). He uses many different tints, “adding white to a hue, and shades, adding black to a hue, of brown, red, blue, and black.” The picture’s effect uses lines and the brightness that is put against the darkness of the bottom part of the painting, creates chiaroscuro, an optical element that can add movement to any painting, but here keeping in view the French revolution and the efforts for uprising by the middle-working class, the chiaroscuro presented in the painting diagonally, “put emphasis on the voyage from darkness towards light” (Gowing 697-710). Much of the work is done in “low-key colors, meaning that the colors used are low on the key scale of that color.” An example is the color brown or a dark brown, which would be on the low part of the scale. The light source is coming from behind Liberty. The lightest areas are around Liberty and the dark areas are around the outside of Liberty (Johnson 699).

Liberty Leading the People is very much to scale and proportion due to the relationship between the parts to one another and to the whole is done very well. No figure is larger than any other figure. An example is the young man to the right of Liberty is not larger than the older men to the left of Liberty. The figures are in scale because the figures are the normal or expected size (Johnson 691-701). The shapes (hands, arms, feet, torso and head) are all in the right scale to an actual part of a person. The plan for this painting is quite symmetrical with “lines from both lower corners, going towards a high point in the top middle of the canvass where the tricolor is flying, generating a close composition” (Hamilton 55-66). Since the space is divided into triangles and rectangles which are balanced geometrical shapes, we can say that the whole composition is balanced and symmetrical. On October 12, 1830 Delacroix wrote to his brother Charles,

“I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and if I have not fought for my country, at least I will paint for her” (Neret 21). In my personal opinion this is very much the case. The passion Delacroix has put in the dynamic atmosphere of the painting is not just for the artistic requirements but it was due to the passion and force which was behind the revolution, which inspired all the people who had some sentimentality. Since the artists were also very active along with the writers, one can assume the “true sense of participation in the activity” (Gowing 697-710). To me, at first glance, this painting is like other works of Delacroix but after the detailed study, I would say, this painting is more of an amplification of Delacroix’s personality, his emotional association with the desired change and the efforts for getting it.

Shown at the Salon of 1831, the painting was understood in various ways. Working class, a fishwife, and a whore is what the figure of Liberty was called by some people. Critics said that the painting was “A slander” of the five glorious days that Liberty was “dishonorable” and that the rebels represented a “rude class of people and workmen.” Delacroix’s daring in reworking and renewing the traditional iconography was not recognized by some critics (John C. 678-679). The work became popular to some and it’s popularly was symbolized by its use on a postage stamp in 1982 and on the hundred-franc bill in 1779 and on Coldplay’s Viva la Vida album (Johnson 70). Some were still offended by the bare breasts of Liberty but Liberty Leading the People stands out for its return to classicism, theme, use of allegory and its composition.

Works Cited
Agulhon, M. Marianne into Battle: Republican Imagery and Symbolism in France, 1789 - 1880. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1st. 1981. 38-42. Print. Delacroix, Ferdinand V. Eugène. Liberty Leading the People. Louvre, Paris, France. 1830 Gowing, L. Paintings in the Louvre. New York: Stewart, Tabor & Chang. 1994 Hamilton, G. H. “The Iconographical Origins of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People,” in Studies in Art and Literature for Bella da Costa Greene. Edited by Dorothy Eugenia Mine. Princeton: N.J. Princeton University Press. 1954. John, C. M. Encyclopedia of the romantic era, 1760-1850. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn. 2nd. 2004. Johnson, J. The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix, A Critical Catalogue, 1816-1831. Vol One. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1981. Néret, G. Eugène Delacroix, 1798-1863: The Prince of Romanticism. 2nd. Koln: Taschen, 2000. 96. Print. Ringbom, S. “Guérin, Delacroix and ‘The Liberty’.” Burlington Magazine Publications, Ltd. May 1968: 270-275. < >.

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