Eugene Delacroix‘s “The Liberty Leading the People” was mentioned in a book I just started reading, David Priestland’s “The Red Flag” (a Reads write up will follow when I complete the book)… . The nature of the content was interesting and prompted me to take a look. The painting was considered by Delacroix’s contemporaries a somewhat “cold feet” attitude towards the use of revolutionary violence in the remaking of France.
Without us exploring the historical context from the lens of a researcher, let us look at the painting and see if there’s enough simply in the image that would allow us to the same conclusion presented above.
The fact that the dead bodies feature most prominently, closest to the viewer, closer than “the people” — and that “the people” are portrayed primarily as a rabble trampling the dead is a pretty large clue. The fact that though the trampled dead wear soldier uniforms seems outweighed by the fact that one can look closely and not discover any weapons clutched between rigor-mortis fingers.
It would seem that the enemies of liberty and the people are no match for a just cause, or the implication could be that “liberty” and “the people” are reckless mob. Based on the portrayal, it seems more likely the latter.
A brief investigation of the characters present (those whom represent “the people”) include a youth dual-wielding firearms that could be the poster child for gun violence, a bearded dandy with a rifle, and an assortment of cutthroat types that have the look of pirates. A wild-eyed man boy is in the bottom of the left with a large dagger in hand looking ready to loot the corpses — and you also have a woman or young man crawling at the feet of “Liberty,” staring up with what appears to be unseemly admiration or perhaps blind faith.
As for the depiction of “Liberty,” we have what appears to be a topless peasant carrying both a flag and a rifle complete with a bayonet. Aside from the corpses in the foreground, a city burns in the background. I cannot be sure, but the tallest building in the background, the one that is also incidentally the furthest away cloaked in shadow with its twin rectangular spires… it looks like the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris.
Considering the placement of what could be the cathedral, and its portrayal, it almost seems the artist’s intention were to portray it almost as the ghost of a conscience — especially considering the madness ahead of it.
Upon my own viewing, I would be more apt to conclude that the notion that Delacroix was lukewarm to or turned off by violence as an understatement. Though it has been stated (not in my article) but in other interpretations that “Liberty” and “The People” are charging forth over their fallen comrades — I’m more inclined to believe (as mentioned in this article) that they’re overwhelming the enemy.
If this were a movie still, Liberty and The People would be in the process of breaking through enemy lines and storming the gates. One of the victims whom is spotlighted (the one in white) is also pantless which implies that he has been at the very least looted. Also, considering Liberty and The People are all armed to the teeth (in the background all you can see are bayonets), it also might be strange to think that their “fallen comrades” were not armed. If the fallen were comrades, why would Delacroix portray them as unarmed when that would separate them from the rest of the group? If he favored them, surely he wouldn’t want the viewer to assume they’ve been looted? As art is all about choices and Delacroix is skilled enough to pick out all the fine details… it gives one pause to wonder.
In a time of revolutionary violence where enemies of the people were in danger of being slain, I suspect that an artist as skilled as Delacroix might’ve been able to paint something that at face value appears heroic, but upon deeper examination is in fact much more cynical than what it appears to be on first blush.