Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix (1830)

This woman is known by all. She is Marianne, the embodiment of the French Republic. However our vision of her is completely mistaken. Marianne comes from a painting made in a time where France was not a republic, but a kingdom. Moreover, it is painted by a man profoundly anti-republican and a sceptic of democracy. This man is Eugène Delacroix, a true anti-parisien, horrified by all that is popular and vulgar.

First, we have to understand what this painting is truly showing as this is a very specific event. We’ve all seen this painting so much that we no longer take the time to look at it. At first glance we see the ‘tricolore’ flag, a phrygien caps, a sans-culottes. This appears to be a general appraisal of the triumphant republic. But when? A few more details tell us that it is not the great 1789 revolution it has been attributed to. The factory worker on the left wearing a beret, trousers with suspenders and an apron, and the day worker at Marianne’s feet wearing a blue blouse, both belong to the industrial era (and therefore post 1800s). We also see a man in a top-hat dressed in the fashion of 1820s, behind him a soldier bears the badge of Polytechnique, a school founded after the Revolution. In the background, we see emerging from the smoke a squadron of royal soldiers under attack from shots fired out of windows. Finally, the flag atop Notre Dame is the symbol of a very specific day, the 28th of  July 1830.

(27-29th July in Brief: After the definitive defeat of Napoleon I, the Monarchy is reinstated in France with Louie XVI’s two brothers. The later of these, Charles X a defender of the church and monarchist tradition, passes a law on the 26th July limiting the people’s voting rights and the freedom of the press. The reaction to this was immediate and the people of Paris took to the street, weapons in hand. Charles X is overthrown and must leave France. But to replace him the Bourgeois select a cousin of the King, Duc Louis Philippe D’Orlean, whom will quickly become as unpopular as those who preceded him and will finally be overthrown in the 1848 revolution.)

But who is this woman standing on a pile of bodies towards whom all eyes are drawn, especially our own? What is she doing half nude in the middle of a firefight? Her feet and chest are bare. Her tunic, though simple, is sculpted by the wind. Her figure. The way she marches towards us but her face remains in profile and most importantly the divine halo of light emerging from the dust behind her.  All these are derived from Greek sculptures of goddesses. She is Liberty. But not like other painters before Delacroix have imagined her. This usually positive allegory is normally portrayed as beautiful, angelic, divine and not often amongst the people. But this rendition is dirty, nude and tanned by the sun, and takes more from the common courtesan than the Greek goddess. She is amongst the people, armed to the teeth with a very masculine posture. Those around her are no better, with dirty feet, dark fingernails sometimes even taking macabre faces. We see a delinquent youth, dangerous and threatening strangers. We are not witnesses to a great movement or ideal but a caricature of  everything that is foul in a mistaken people.

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