Bastille Day & Delacroix’s Erroneous Legacy

By LIZ HAGER

And, if I haven’t fought for my country, at least I’ll paint for her.
—Eugène Delacroix, October 12, 1830, letter to his brother

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

Eugène Delacroix, July 28: Liberty Leading the People,
1830, oil on canvas, approximately 11.8 x 8.2 feet.
(Louvre, Paris)

Despite the fact that it does not depict the storming of the Bastille, the image most associated in the public’s mind with this pivotal event is Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

The July 14 storming of the Bastille prison by Parisian citizens in 1789 is generally considered to be the start of the French revolution. The riot was more or less a symbolic gesture, as only seven prisoners were held in the Bastille at the time (under Louis XVI’s dictatorial lettres de cachet policy), none them of much political importance. The French Revolution was the first in a series of political upheavals in France that ultimately led to the dissolution of the monarchy and the establishment of the modern system of French Republics.

Liberty Leading the People commemorates the July Revolution of 1830, which toppled Charles X and laid the French monarchy to rest once and for all. Ordered by his brother, Louis XVI, to leave France soon after the fall of the Bastille, Charles eventually returned to Paris to be crowned king in 1824. His short amd inept reign was fraught with controversy. On July 26, 1830, in the wake of rising unrest, Charles issued a series of repressive ordinances, which provoked widespread revolt from the middle class. Thus was established the Second Republic.

In-depth studies of Liberty Leading the People abound. But two aspects are worth mentioning highlighting. First, the effectiveness of the painting’s carefully constructed, muted color scheme, which is punctuated by bright swatches of primary reds, blues and yellows. It simultaneously evokes the realistic haze of a battle site, while issuing rousing and overly romantic call to arms. Then there is the matter of bare-breasted Liberté, who holds the standard aloft. She was to become the standard for Marianne, the unofficial symbol of France, and the purported model for the Statue of Liberty.

Why is she bare-breasted? Many assume that she is an allegory of Greek democracy, and that, as such she naturally mimicked the style of classical Greek statuary. True, Aphrodite (or Venus, the most famous of which is the de Milo) is often depicted bare-breasted.  Yet, the most famous of the Liberté antecedents, Nike, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, is fully-clothed.

Winged Victory (Nike of Samothrace),
ca. 190 BCE, marble, approximately 12 feet high (Louvre, Paris).

It is more likely that Delacroix’s Marianne grew out of Neo-Classical clichés of the sort employed by Delacroix’s teacher, Pierre Narcisse Guérin.

Pierre Narcisse Guérin, Aurora and Cephalus
1810, oil on canvas, approximately 8.4 x 6.1 feet
(Louvre, Paris)

Wider Connections

Eugène Delacroix

French history timeline

July 1830 Revolution

Romanticism in France: Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

Marianne

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