Where? First floor, room 700 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
What do you see? This painting represents what a revolution feels like for the people involved. The woman in the center, referred to as Liberty, is holding the French flag. She is standing on top of a barricade, which you can recognize by the pieces of wood and the cobblestones in the foreground. Liberty represents the struggle of the common people for freedom, but at the same time, she shows the energy and excitement that was part of a revolution. In her left hand, she holds an infantry musket. This is a rifle with a bayonet fixed to it, in case she would want to spear the enemies from close range. Liberty is depicted in a victorious pose, and she is showing her breasts to the people. She is surrounded by a mix of people from the French society. On her right is a child brandishing a pair of guns. At her feet is a day laborer from the countryside wearing a blue jacket (notice the red, white, and blue pattern in his clothes). The man to Liberty’s left with the black jacket and the top hat is someone representing the middle-class people (some say it is Delacroix himself, but there is serious doubt about this claim). The man in white on the left is a factory worker holding a saber. There is a sharp contrast between the victorious people fighting for the freedom of France and the dead people in the foreground. In the bottom right, you can see a dead soldier and a guardsman. In the background, you can see the smoke of the cannons. In the top right, you can see the city of Paris in the background with the two iconic towers of the Notre Dame. Finally, in the two spars of wood on the right, you can see the signature of the painter, reading “Eug. Delacroix 1830.”
Backstory: This painting commemorates the July Revolution of 1830 in France. During this revolution, King Charles X of France was brought down. Delacroix wrote in a letter to his brother that if he could not fight for his country, he could at least paint for his country. This painting served as a political poster for the revolution, and the idea was that people would sympathize with the freedom fighters on this painting. It took Delacroix about two months to complete the painting. The next he year he sold the painting to the government for three thousand French francs and, in addition, they awarded him a Legion of Honour, the highest French order for merits by military and civilians which was introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte.
July Revolution: After Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated in 1815, the monarchy was restored in France. On July 25, 1830, King Charles X signed four public announcements that were unfavorable to the common people. These announcements included the end of press freedom and a new voting system that favored the higher classes in society. On July 27, 1830, the citizens of Paris started the July revolution (also called the Second French Revolution) against King Charles X. The civil war lasted three days, and on August 2, 1830, Charles X officially abdicated. His successor was Louis-Philippe, the cousin of Charles X, who became the new king (until he was brought down in the Third French Revolution in 1848).
Symbolism: The woman holding the tricolor represents the goddess of Liberty. The tricolor was the flag of liberty and is now the French national flag (do you also see the tricolor on top of the Notre Dame?). For this painting, Delacroix was inspired by the Venus of Milo (which is also in the Louvre), and by showing Liberty’s breasts, he signals to us that she is partly a goddess. However, at the same time, Liberty represents a person fighting in the revolution. The different caps you see in this painting are representative of the different social classes that participated in the revolution. Do you see the simple hat of the factory worker on the left, the infantry hat of the young man below him who is holding on to the cobblestones, the top hat of the middle class, the cloth of the day laborer at Liberty’s feet, and the student hat of the boy on the right? The red cap that Liberty wears on her head is also a symbol of liberty. This cap is called a Phrygian cap, which is a soft cap in the form of a cone and with the top pulled forward. The Phrygian cap is also called the liberty cap as, especially in artistic works, it represents freedom. This cap was popular during the first French Revolution between 1789 and 1799.
Romanticism? Eugène Delacroix is considered to be the father of French Romantic painting. At the beginning of the 19th century, there was an ongoing debate between Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres on what was a better way of painting. Ingres, who is considered to be a neoclassical painter, believed in the classical ideas such as simplicity, symmetry, and idealized beauty in art. However, Delacroix thought that the expressive potential of colors was much more important. He liked to depict moments of extreme emotions as you can see in this painting.
Who is Eugène Delacroix? Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was born in a small village close to Paris. He has made many large-scale paintings about contemporary subjects, which was a successful strategy to earn money around that time. His work was usually dramatic and romantic, and he knew how to express emotions in a painting. He was inspired by artists such as Titian and Rubens and is considered to be the father of French romanticism. He was a very productive artist, and after his death, 9,140 works were attributed to him, mostly drawings, but also 853 paintings. Many other French artists have been inspired by the works of Delacroix, including Degas, Manet, and Renoir.
Fun fact: The design of the Statue of Liberty in New York has been inspired by Liberty as created by Delacroix in this painting. The Statue of Liberty has been designed by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and has been given by France to the United States, where it was unveiled in 1886. However, several changes have been made to the statue compared to Delacroix’s depiction of Liberty: no nudity, no impression of violence, and a crown instead of a Phrygian cap. Liberty, as depicted in this painting, has also appeared on the French one hundred Franc banknote from 1979 till 1994 and since 1982 Liberty has also been featured on French postage stamps.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links).
Where? First floor, room 700 of the Denon wing in the Louvre. A smaller version is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art but is currently not on display.
When? The original is from 1827, and the smaller replica is from 1844.
What do you see? In the center, King Sardanapalus of Assyria, dressed in white, lays in his bed which is covered with bright red sheets. On the front corners of his bed are two large elephant heads. His bed stands on top of a large pyre. You can see some woodblocks making up the pyre behind the black slave in the left foreground and on the bottom right. While rebellion forces surround his palace, Sardanapalus orders his eunuchs and palace officers to cut the throats of his mistresses. He did not want anyone or anything that gave him pleasure during his life to survive him. He has a calm and disinterested expression which contrast strongly with the cruel scene around him. Notice also that all mistresses and Sardanapalus wear expensive jewelry as the king also wanted his royal possessions to be burned with him on the pyre. On the bottom right is also a collection of crowns and jewelry that are about to go down.
Who is Sardanapalus? According to the Greek writer Ctesias, Sardanapalus lived in the 7th century BC. He was the last king of Assyria, which was a very large empire in the Middle East between the 25th and 7th century BC. He lived an extremely luxurious life and was very lazy. According to Sardanapalus, the main purpose of life was physical desire. He followed his own advice, dressed in woman’s clothes, wore makeup, and was surrounded by many male and female mistresses. As many people got annoyed by his lifestyle, a group of rebellions formed to defeat Sardanapalus and his troops. Sardanapalus went down in a typical fashion. As some point during the war with the rebellions, he thought that he had defeated the rebellions and started a big party. However, the rebellions came with reinforcements and defeated Sardanapalus, leading to the end of the Assyrian empire. Before he got caught, Sardanapalus burned himself together with many of his eunuchs and mistresses, and most of his royal possessions.
Who is Delacroix? Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was the leader of the Romantic painters in France. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was the main artistic rival during his life. Whereas Ingres was the leader of the school of Neoclassical painting, Delacroix believed in the Romantic style and was inspired by artists like Rubens, Tintoretto, and Veronese. The style of Delacroix can be characterized by an emphasis on using colors and depicting emotions, and not on providing a clear composition and shapes of the people in his paintings. In 1830, he painted his most famous work, Liberty Leading the People, which is on display in the Louvre as well. The work of Delacroix has been important for the development of Impressionism later in the 18th century. Artists like Degas, Manet, and Renoir greatly admired the work of Delacroix.
Fun fact: This painting is the largest uncommissioned by Delacroix. He had high hopes of this work and created many sketches that are still available for this painting. Below are two pictures of sketches he made that are in possession of the Louvre. The painting was first exhibited in the Salon of 1828 in Paris. The painting got many negative reviews. One viewer went so far as threatening to cut off Delacroix's hands such that he could never paint again. There were several reasons for these negative reactions, such as the messy composition and incoherent use of colors. Whereas the French State bought earlier paintings of Delacroix, they did not buy this one. Instead, Delacroix took it back to his studio where it stayed until 1845. He only sold the painting after he made a much smaller replica of the painting owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The painting was not on public display until 1921 when the Louvre bought it. Nowadays, this painting is highly appreciated. Looking back, it is one of the early Romantic paintings. Whereas people in the early 19th century were still used to the clarity of the Neoclassical paintings by Ingres and colleagues, the Romantic paintings focused on showing emotions and were much less clear.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.