Eugene Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People: Painting & Analysis

Eugene Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People: Painting & Analysis
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  • 0:00 Introduction to Delacroix
  • 1:37 ''Liberty Leading the…
  • 3:13 Composition and Structure
  • 3:59 Color and Brushstroke
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, explore the work of French Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix, a man not afraid of courting controversy. Learn how he composed his paintings and used color to emphasize action through a detailed discussion of his most famous painting, 'Liberty Leading the People'.

Introduction to Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was born in France. At seventeen, he pursued classical studies in Rouen and then painted in Paris under Pierre Guérin. But his teacher's cold-mannered Neoclassical style held no interest for him. He was instead inspired by visiting the Louvre and copying works in galleries of more expressive artists, like Rubens and Veronese. In the 1824 Salon in Paris, Delacroix exhibited Massacre at Chios, based on tragic events from the recent Greek War of Independence. Despite some critics calling it a massacre of painting (clearly they were not fans), the French government awarded it a gold medal. More importantly, they purchased it. Delacroix used the funds to travel to London in 1825. He absorbed English literature and explored the work of artists such as Thomas Lawrence and Joshua Reynolds. Their use of undiluted color and active brushwork made a great impact on him.

When he returned to France, he received his first state commission and participated in several subsequent Salons, exhibiting works in the 1827 and 1828 Salons that scandalized press and critics. Going beyond the imagery of other Romantic works of the time, Delacroix's paintings featured violent action, overt sexual themes, chaotic figures, swirling areas of color, and unfettered dynamism. Delacroix was not afraid of provoking reactions.

Liberty Leading the People Painting

In 1830, Delacroix witnessed historic events that led to his most famous painting. On July 27th, 28th, and 29th, growing unrest in Paris exploded into revolution. Parisians took up arms and increasingly flew the Tricolor flag in place of the white flag of the Bourbons. Three days of fighting in the streets toppled the Bourbon King Charles X and placed King Louis Philippe, the duc d'Orleans, on the throne. This revolution became known as Trois Glorieuses, or Three Glorious Days.

Liberty Leading the People
Liberty Leading the People

Inspired, Delacroix began work in September 1830 on Liberty Leading the People. The scene combines stark realism with lofty allegory, conveying hidden meaning through symbol or metaphor. A female personification of Liberty strides forward through the chaos, summoning the fighting force behind her. Parisians from every walk of life rise in the streets, from worker to office clerk and students to street urchins. Smoke wafts in the background as the crowd surges. Figures grip guns and swords. Hands are clenched, elbows bent, arms raised. Bodies are elongated or bent and twisted, and limbs are foreshortened. Delacroix plays with anatomy to create a greater sense of movement. To the right of striding Liberty, a young boy brandishes pistols. His image later supposedly influenced Victor Hugo when writing Les Misérables to create the character of Gavroche.

Composition and Structure

Brutal realism of battered corpses anchors the composition across the lower third of the canvas. Lifeless bodies form the base of a triangle. This underlying structure echoes works by other artists that Delacroix had seen, including Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, for which Delacroix posed. Fighting figures to Liberty's left emphasize the shape, especially the top-hatted man clutching a rifle, which reaches its climax in Liberty's raised arm and flag. Amid the chaos, Liberty moves with certainty, backlit in the wafting smoke, breasts exposed, foot solid on the barricade. It's a jarring juxtaposition of dark (death, injury, violence) and light (beauty, radiance).

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