Liberty Leading the People

Liberty Leading the People

 

Liberty Leading the People is a painting by noted Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix. The painting celebrates the July Revolution of 1830, which saw the end of the rule of King Charles X, the younger brother of King Louis XVII, the monarch famously beheaded during the French Revolution. The July Revolution installed a constitutional monarchy under the “Citizen King” Louis-Phillippe, so named since the revolution established that as king he drew his power from the will of the people. Louis-Phillippe himself would be deposed less than two decades later in the Revolution of 1848. (Europe had a lot of revolutions in the late 18th century stretching into the mid-19th century,)

Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix

As an iconic image of violent revolution, with easily adaptable imagery and a snappy title to boot, Delacroix’s painting has become embedded in popular culture. From the fluttering tricolor and the weapons in the hands of a distinct array of figures, to the bodies sprawled on the ground and the personification of Liberty in the center, all the elements are in place to depict the scene with a variety of characters from other media, often superimposing wildly differing meanings upon the piece.

Adding to the malleable nature of the painting in popular culture is the indeterminate origins of the moment depicted to most observers. Delacroix’s painting does not commemorate an actual event during the July Revolution, but rather a Romantic rendition of the revolution as a whole, just as the female figure in the center represents the concept of liberty driving the people forward rather than a real person. Given that to most non-French the July Revolution of 1830, much like the 1832 June Rebellion in Les Misérables, is not very well known and often conflated into a single broad concept of a “French Revolution,” the image is able to speak to a wide range of concepts to a viewer, both real and imagined, historical and fictional. It is untethered from a moment in history, and thus freed from the expectations and preconceptions a painting depicting a real event with real people brings with it, as occurs with other renditions of works such as Luetze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. As such, variations on Liberty Leading the People are often seen in fanart and in popular media.

Mercy Leading the People – Overwatch fan art by Arqa
From the 2015 anime series Shimoneta

The personification of Liberty remains an enduring figure in Western civilization, Originating from the Roman goddess Libertas, the image of a female embodiment of liberty has graced various American coins, while more recent incarnations include the Goddess of Democracy statue raised during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations and perhaps the most well-known modern example, the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Marianne, a female personification of Liberty, is the symbol of the French Republic and appears on government seals and currency. The Liberty depicted in Delacroix’s painting is a precursor to the more official version of Marianne used today.

The original painting now hangs in the Louvre; its many imitators can be found on Pixiv, Tumblr, or a meme generator near you.

Further Readings

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