A defining image of the French Revolution, Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People is believed to have inspired Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables and the cover for Coldplay’s 2006 album Viva la Vida.
D elacroix’s masterpiece Liberty Leading the People depicts the July Revolution of 1830, the same year the painting was completed. During this time Louis Philippe I was appointed king after the abdication of King Charles X, brother of the famously guillotined King Louis XVI. Though exposed, the central female figure in this work wears a Phrygian cap, a classic symbol of freedom, which is further exemplified by her triumphant waving of the French tricolor flag. An allegory for liberty, the woman stands among a diverse crowd of people – children, students, factory workers, militants, even those of an upper class, thus illustrating the revolution’s universal consequences. Guns and blades contribute to the violent and chaotic urban scene, which has left many lifeless on the ground.
“I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her. It has restored my good spirits,” Delacroix wrote to his brother less than three months after the July Revolution. In fulfilling his self-imposed obligation of inspiring the French people to take a stand, Delacroix cemented himself as one of the foremost painters of French romanticism, while also producing one of art history’s most radical images.
At an early age, Delacroix was recognized for his aptitude in both drawing and Classics. Having attended the Lycée Imperial in Paris, Delacroix began formally training at the esteemed studio of Pierre Guérin in 1815 and was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in 1816. As he came into his own as an artist, producing such iconic works as Liberty Leading the People, Delacroix interpreted the contemporary world around him through a classical lens. Sotheby’s has sold a number of drawings and paintings by Delacroix, including the circa 1852 work, Tiger on the look-out, which sold for €931,500 in 2017 at Sotheby's Paris, nearly doubling its estimate.
The majority of Delacroix’s works are held by French museums, the Louvre having the largest collection. Although the masterpiece was initially considered inflammatory by the French government and removed from public view, Liberty Leading the People was put back on display at the Louvre, where it resides today, after the Revolution of 1848. The painting was featured in the museum's spring 2018 Eugène Delacroix retrospective, which was developed in partnership with The Met in New York.