Delacroix Paints

Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, his only historical painting inspired by a contemporary event, became the quintessential symbol of heroic and egalitarian struggle for liberty, but it was also a reflection of the artist’s desire to paint for his country and thus participate in the July Revolution deposing Charles X.

Summary of Event

On July 26, 1830, the France;censorship
Censorship;French French king Charles X suspended freedom of the press, dissolved the Chamber of Deputies, and restricted the right to vote. In direct protest to the king’s oppressive measures, the people took to the streets. Three days of violence ensued, resulting in one thousand deaths and widespread destruction, as well as the fall of the Bourbon Dynasty France;Bourbon Dynasty
Bourbon dynasties;French , which had been restored to power after Napoleon I’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Historically referred to as the July Revolution or Les Trois Glorieuses (the Three Glorious Days), the riots of July 27-29 led to Charles X’s Charles X
[p]Charles X[Charles 10];deposition of abdication on August 2, 1830, and the accession of Louis-Philippe to a republican throne as the “king of the French people.” The young painter Eugène Delacroix was moved by the battle scene he had witnessed firsthand near the Pont d’Arcole in Paris to paint an allegory representing this historical moment, Liberty Leading the People. Liberty Leading the People (Delacroix)
Delacroix, Eugène
France;July Revolution
July Revolution (1830);and art[Art]
[p]Louis-Philippe[Louis Philippe];and July Revolution[July Revolution]
[kw]Delacroix Paints Liberty Leading the People (October-Dec., 1830)
[kw]Paints Liberty Leading the People, Delacroix (October-Dec., 1830)
[kw]Liberty Leading the People, Delacroix Paints (October-Dec., 1830)
[kw]Leading the People, Delacroix Paints Liberty (October-Dec., 1830)
[kw]People, Delacroix Paints Liberty Leading the (October-Dec., 1830)
Liberty Leading the People (Delacroix)
Delacroix, Eugène
France;July Revolution
July Revolution (1830);and art[Art]
[p]Louis-Philippe[Louis Philippe];and July Revolution[July Revolution]
[g]France;Oct.-Dec., 1830: Delacroix Paints Liberty Leading the People[1620]
[c]Art;Oct.-Dec., 1830: Delacroix Paints Liberty Leading the People[1620]
Charles X
[p]Charles X[Charles 10];deposition

Nineteenth century viewers easily recognized the setting and members of society among the crowd represented in Delacroix’s passionate work. At a distance of only a few months, Delacroix recreated from memory the stirring sensation of the Three Glorious Days when the spirit of Liberty, the central figure in his painting, led French people from different walks of life to unite in revolt. Amid billowing clouds of smoke, the profile of Notre Dame Cathedral emerges in the painting as the topographical backdrop for the revolution. One can readily identify various personages on the basis of their characteristic outfits, including a factory worker with a saber, a bourgeois foreman with a gun, and a tradesman kneeling at Liberty’s feet. In the background, one may also discern a student from the prestigious engineering college L’École Polytechnique by his tipped hat. Victims on opposing sides of the rebellion lie prostrate in the foreground: at left, the body of a male combatant of the people; at right, two soldiers of the royal guard who attempted to suppress the insurrection. To Liberty’s immediate right, a young boy brandishing arms recalls the students from the Latin Quarter who joined in the victorious uprising.

The painting takes its name from the figure who occupies the center of the work, a young woman dressed like the people boldly standing barefoot at the top of a barricade formed by the cadavers of revolutionaries. Soiled and with breasts bared, she proudly waves the revolutionary tricolor flag with which her red Phrygian cap indicates a clear allegiance. Delacroix’s arresting transformation of the classical nude into a modern allegorical symbol outraged many nineteenth century art critics yet captivated his contemporaries. He elevated the figure of a working-class woman into Liberty incarnate.

In a letter to his brother Charles dated October 12, 1830, Delacroix announced that he had undertaken a modern subject, A Barricade, and with this project, the otherwise noncombatant painter had taken up artistic arms on behalf of his country. Exceptionally political in the context of Delacroix’s generally apolitical oeuvre, Liberty Leading the People portrayed in both realistic and allegorical ways the “glorious” victory of the people that brought Louis-Philippe to power. The title of the painting squarely situated the work in a specific historical context, whereas Delacroix’s symbol of Liberty raised questions about his aesthetics and eventually about the politics of his painting.

The composition of the painting is united through a pyramidal construction. The base of the pyramid, composed by cadavers lying side by side, forms a triangle that is anchored at right by the foot of the boy accompanying Liberty and at left by the butt of the bourgeois personage’s rifle. The spectator’s eye is directed upward to the flag, held high above the barricade. In striking contrast to the classical compositional stability of the work, along with the play of light and shadows, Delacroix’s mixing of brilliant colors and earth tones evokes movement and emotion in ways associated with Romanticism. Interweaving the real and the ideal, Liberty Leading the People expressed the sensibility of an era rife with contradictions.

Delacroix’s thoroughly Romantic canvas was first presented at the Salon of 1831, and it earned the artist the Legion of Honor. The new king, Louis-Philippe, was initially impressed by the dynamism and ardor of the painting and acquired it for the Palais du Luxembourg. In a matter of months, however, the increasingly conservative July regime viewed the political implications of Delacroix’s composition with suspicion. Delacroix had captured for generations to come the revolutionary impetus that precipitated Louis-Philippe’s reign, a universal passion for liberty that threatened any monarch’s authority.

By 1832, Louis-Philippe ordered that Liberty Leading the People be stored out of public view. The painting was returned to Delacroix in 1839, most likely because the director of fine arts at the time, Edmond Cavé, was a friend of the artist. The controversial work was again requested from Delacroix after the Paris Revolution of 1848 and exhibited at the Luxembourg until 1850, after which time the canvas, once again considered charged with subversive potential, was stored. By way of a direct appeal to Napoleon III Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Exposition Universelle[Exposition Universelle] , Delacroix succeeded in having Liberty Leading the People included in the retrospective dedicated to him at the Exposition Universelle Exposition Universelle of 1855. It was not until 1861, however, that Delacroix’s painting was reinstated at the Luxembourg Museum and transferred to the Louvre Museum Louvre Museum in 1874. In 2003, France’s minister of culture announced plans to decentralize Delacroix’s work of art, removing it from Paris to a provincial location. The fate of Delacroix’s masterpiece has yet to be determined.


The aesthetic weight and political meaning of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People was apparent in his day. Publicly honored and rejected in succession for his choice and treatment of a politically indeterminate historic moment, Delacroix rightly saw 1830 emblematically as a time of tension and indecision about the future of liberty in a postrevolutionary culture. Criticized for his figure of Liberty, a living type taken from contemporary life that did not hark back to classical mythology, the Romantic Delacroix, wittingly or not, prepared the way for realism.

To reconsider Delacroix’s illustration of a scene of contemporary history today is to appreciate more fully his inspired use of color to evoke real sensation, which the poet Charles Baudelaire deemed visionary during the nineteenth century. With Liberty Leading the People, Delacroix successfully negotiated his formal classical heritage and his expressive Romantic tendencies. The aesthetic ambivalence of his allegorical picture continues to inspire new readings of his artistic genius. A painting that gained popular currency, as suggested by its use on the one-hundred-franc bill in 1979 and on a postage stamp in 1982, Liberty Leading the People is a singular cultural archive of a principal chapter in French history and a unique monument to the rich history of French art.

Further Reading

  • Fraser, Elisabeth A. Delacroix, Art, and Patrimony in Post-Revolutionary France. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. A close treatment of Delacroix’s relationship to the Bourbon Restoration, traced in relation to his early art, which set the stage for the political significance of Liberty Leading the People.
  • Jobert, Barthélémy. Delacroix. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. A careful reappraisal of Delacroix’s place in cultural history that treats stages of the painter’s visionary work and the conditions under which he created particular works, including Liberty Leading the People.
  • Prideaux, Tom. The World of Delacroix, 1798-1863. New York: Time, 1966. A detailed account of Delacroix’s historical moment that relates the complexity of his artistic genius to the tension between his classical and Romantic tendencies.
  • Roger-Marx, Claude, and Sabine Cotté. Delacroix’s Universe. Translated by Lynn Michelman. Woodbury, N.Y.: Barrons, 1970. A thematic study of Delacroix’s drawings, sketches, and pastels for his majors works, including Liberty Leading the People, with selections from his writings.
  • Wiseman, Mary. “Gendered Symbols.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56, no. 3 (1998): 241-249. A detailed analysis of gendered readings of Liberty Leading the People that exposes their reliance upon familiar conceptions of the feminine and opens up a new way of thinking about Delacroix’s use of allegory.
  • Wright, Beth Segal, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A collection of essays that provide an overview of Delacroix’s life and work and analyses of the painter’s canvases, thoughts, and influence.

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