It’s an iconic and powerfully strong image, isn’t it. Lady Liberty leading the charge of freedom, in what is known as Delacroix’s most famous painting, but the symbolism and composition of the piece have opened debates around sexism and imagery.
Delacroix was notorious for his dramatic paintings, but audiences found his topics and depictions rather hard to stomach, as the scenes are overly violent, too grand, oversized and overpowering in the response that they almost demand.
Delacroix was a leading name in French Romanticism, born in 1798 he was educated at Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and at the Lycée Pierre Corneille in Rouen, where he immersed himself in the classics and won awards for drawing. In 1815 he started his training with Pierre-Narcisse Guérin in the neoclassical style of Jacques-Louis David. When his fellow artist Théodore Géricault painted “The Raft of the Medusa” in 1818, this inspired Delacroix’s first major painting – “The Barque of Dante”.
From this point, Delacroix continued to create works which divided the audiences, and it isn’t by chance that “The Raft of Medusa” was the painting to initially inspire him, as later, when creating “Liberty leading the People” he echoed the triangular structure of Géricault’s piece to add depth and balance to his greatest painting.
Liberty broke a trend in Delacroix’s style, with a woman leading the people to hope and freedom over a pile of dead bodies. It was no secret that Delacroix saw women as an aesthetic to life and many of his paintings have women in them as draped and accepting of their fate, so it is unusual to see a woman so dominantly prominent in his work. This was a far cry from the status of women in the 1830s, and there are some interesting factors within the painting which stand her apart from the women of any class during the French revolution. Is this just another painting which demonstrates Delacroix’s feelings on women, or is the symbolism much deeper than his apparent sexism?
Obviously, the woman leading the people is no ordinary women, she is, in fact, Libertas and is the embodiment of Liberty. She is shown baring her breasts and holding high the tricolour flag, while in her other hand a rifle fixed with a bayonet. She strides over the dead bodies of men as a small boy, armed with pistols, hurries along beside her, as the revolutionary men come to join her march.
You may think that this painting was a heavily political piece, a depiction of the revolution from the view of those who were opposed to the government, but this is a painting of a moment in time in the revolution where anything was possible, created by a man that was trying to make sense of what was going on around him; its a moment of anarchic freedom, it is the most enduring image of what revolution feels like from within: ecstatic, violent, libidinal and murderous.
This painting is in the style of romanticism, which doesn’t concentrate on the realism of a situation, more externalises the feeling of the artist on to the canvas.
Liberty shows her breasts, not in a sexual display, but in a display of dominance and power. This painting pre-dates Impressionists, who recorded what they saw, rather than depicting symbols in a romantic way. Would it have been possible to paint a French mortal woman in this stance? At the time probably not. Only a symbolic woman could have such a role in a piece of historical propaganda rather than a real woman. She is a robust woman, indicating the strength of her convictions. She is shown in profile, almost obvious to the maddening crowd which surrounds her. She barely notices the path of dead bodies which she strides over. She is ready to fight at close range and defend the honour of her convictions.
The young boy is the symbol of how early this moment in time is within the revolution. He stands for the childlike naivety which the masses created barricades to bring down Charles X. It’s always a disturbing image, an armed child, who doesn’t have the full moral or social sense to truly comprehend what is happening to act on judgement; yet it also echoes the hope which is shown with Liberty at the front.
There are dreamlike qualities to the painting. The revolutionary who looks up at Liberty from the ground has a blue shirt and a red headscarf he has a bit of white shirt poking out under his blue top – that is, he is decked in red, white and blue, echoing the tricolour that flies over the barricades. This man is clothed in a decayed, dying version of Liberty’s flag: he is her sick shadow, an indication and premonition of the outcome of revolution. It doesn’t matter who wins in the end, people still suffer and die.
Is Delacroix sexist in his subject matter? Well, of course, he is! In 1830, it would almost be impossible not to be sexist or patriarchal as the dominant society, even in revolutionary France, was sexist at this time, as was the rest of the Western World. However, is the painting sexual and misogynistic? No, I don’t think it is. Its subject matter is not about sex or sexuality but about the power of the revolution. Oh, so often we hear of the women being the temptress who leads men astray, so why wouldn’t the Goddess Libertas be leading men into a dangerous and fraught situation under the guise of the seduction of freedom.
Delacroix has painted the hysterical freedom and joy of revolution. His painting acting as a reminder of revolution’s most charismatic visual icon, and yet it is not naive. Death is part of the glamour, and there is sickness at the very centre of progress. Romanticism is not an optimistic art. If Delacroix’s painting understands the seduction of revolution better than any other, it also acknowledges the violence that is inseparable from that belief in total change and the rule of the crowd.