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Liberty Leading the People

Used under the creative commons license.

In honor of the recent french election, let’s take a look at a favored french pastime: revolution.

Liberty Leading the People looks like a promotional poster for Les Miserables. The painting used to grace the $100 Franc note. The image is so quintessentially french that it’s actually featured on government paperwork.

Painted by the iconic french artist, Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People presents a scene from the July Revolution of 1830. The group gathered in the painting surges forward, led by the allegorical symbol of France, La Marieanne. The mob fights through a smoke filled street in Paris, presumably battling past barricades to liberate the country from the clutches of tyranny.

But, revolution isn’t merely the subject matter. The technique and style of the Delacroix’s work represents a radical departure from artistic standards of the time.

Delacroix overthrew the orderly, licked perfection of Neoclassicism. Here, he envisions the revolution in an utterly romantic way. The wispy brush strokes evoke the smoke of the battle field. The two point perspective brings the figures out of the frame and toward the viewer. Color dominates, from the bright red of the French flag to the peek of promising blue sky.

Revolution, both political and artistic, suited Delacroix. While he did not take to the streets during the July Revolution, he did paint himself into the scene. He’s the dashing gentleman with the top hat to the left of the Marieanne.

He likely would have enjoyed the spectacle of the recent french election.  The grand stakes, international attention, and last minute hacking drama would likely have appealed to his romantic sensibilities.

Delacroix famously painted Liberty Leading the People on a scale traditionally reserved for history paintings. Scenes of the present were not usually painted on large canvases or given this sense of grandeur. But, Delacroix felt sure that the July Revolution would mark a turning point in French history, an event that would be mythologized like the epics of Greece and Rome. However, the July Revolution doesn’t quite occupy the place in history that Delacroix expected. It effectively traded one corrupt monarch, Charles X, for another, Louis Philippe. Eighteen short years later, the barricades would go up again and Louis Philippe would be ousted.

The latest election has also been labeled a great turning point for France. Headlines scream that it is potentially the country’s most important vote of the post-War era. For now, it seems the globalist-EU block has dominated. Still, french history and Delacroix might caution against buying into an easy narrative.

Liberty may still be leading the people, but the destination remains a mystery.

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