Saturday Art: Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”, a.k.a. To the Ramparts
(Picture courtesy of the public commons, at wikipedia.)
One of the representations of the revolution in France has a portrayal of symbolized Liberty, taking her warrior people ‘to the ramparts‘, and represents a cry that often rang out as the French took their country back from despots.
Delacroix depicted Liberty as both an allegorical goddess-figure and a robust woman of the people. The mound of corpses acts as a kind of pedestal from which Liberty strides, barefoot and bare-breasted, out of the canvas and into the space of the viewer. The Phrygian cap she wears had come to symbolize liberty during the first French Revolution, of 1789–94. The painting has been seen as a marker to the end of the Age of Enlightenment, as many scholars see the end of the French Revolution as the start of the romantic era.
The fighters are from a mixture of social classes, ranging from the bourgeoisie represented by the young man in a top hat, a student from the prestigious École Polytechnique wearing the traditional bicorne, to the revolutionary urban worker, as exemplified by the boy holding pistols. What they have in common is the fierceness and determination in their eyes. Aside from the flag held by Liberty, a second, minute tricolore can be discerned in the distance flying from the towers of Notre Dame.
The identity of the man in the top hat has been widely debated. The suggestion that it was a self-portrait by Delacroix has been discounted by modern art historians. In the late 19th century, it was suggested the model was the theatre director Étienne Arago; others have suggested the future curator of the Louvre, Frédéric Villot; but there is no firm consensus on this point.
Although Delacroix was not the first artist to depict Liberty in Phrygian cap, his painting may be the best known early version of the figure commonly known asMarianne, a symbol of the French Republic and of France in general.
The painting inspired Bartholdi‘s Statue of Liberty in New York City, which was given to the United States as a gift from the French a half-century afterLiberty Leading the People was painted. The statue, which holds a torch in its hand, takes a more stable, immovable stance than that of the woman in the painting. An engraved version of part of the painting, along with a depiction of Delacroix himself, was featured on the 100-franc note from 1978 to 1995.
Glorious Liberty was the theme that gave France its greatness, and her government remains still responsive to the popular voice. The Star Spangled Banner has the words “o’er the ramparts we watched’, a reflection of the street battling that the French Revolution particularly exhibited.