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University of Leeds ARTF 2127

Liberty Leading the People

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Liberty Leading the People, painted by Eugène Delacroix, commemorates the three Glorious Days, during the Paris uprising in July 1830. The liberal republicans initiated the violation against the Second Restoration government and Charles X, the last king in France, was overthrown. The painting of Liberty Leading the People reflected the imagination of the creator, including the nature world, the human passion, feline, journey, and Gothic ribbed vault and events changing the history. The deep feeling and the personal involvement of the painter in the historical event was finally transformed into painting and art (Delacroix, 1830). In the painting, the Liberty is personified by a young woman who wears Phrygian cap, which is similar to the stocking cap by the contemporary working class in France and was popular during the French Revolution (Harvey, 1985). She hoists a Tricolor above the head and grasps a musket with bayonet in the other hand. The woman is idealized and maintains some features of human. Similarly, all the followers are also not specific individuals but are the representation of different groups of people who were part of the revolution. Over time, the painting became of the most popular works of Eugène Delacroix. The reality and the innovation of the work, which symbolizes the Liberty and the revolution, has been rejected by critics who are used to traditional representation of reality (Farrell, 2000). The work is now stored in the Louvre since 1874 and is regarded as an important representation of the romantic and revolution fervor. In addition, it is also regarded as the heir to historical paining and forerunner of Picasso's Guernica. This study will analyze the work Liberty Leading the People based on the conceptual framework that consists five keywords: representation, form, response, interpretation, and power.


The theme of Liberty Leading the people of the oil painting is a young woman with a phrygian cap. She holds the French flag high in her right hand and the infantry gun with a bayonet in her left hand. She had a belt around her waist and the dress slipped under the breast. She symbolizes the goddess of freedom and calls for the people to revolutionize together. Followed by her passionate citizens and workers, the teenager who took the double gun on her left side highlighted the mass base of the revolution. In fact, she represents not only the thousands of abstract people who fight for freedom, but also the highest glory. She is healthy and powerful, leading the people, including workers, intellectuals, bravely advancing. At the same time, she also pinned the country's revolutionary feelings and respect for heroism. This artistic work abstractly expresses the core political subject and meaning of modern society: freedom and democracy. The author's own creativity is fully embodied in the romantic art style, which expresses the author's subjective emotions, enthusiasm and justice. The painter, with unrestrained enthusiasm, praised the revolutionary movement of the workers, the petty bourgeoisie and the intellectuals. This painting has the significance of political propaganda and agitation. In the background of that society, the author can bravely create works of art that reflect the theme of freedom. In the context of the oppressive forces of feudalism, the author expresses the lofty mission and responsibility of the artist. This is also the soul of Liberty Leading The People, which radiates people's fighting spirit and desire for freedom from the inside out.


Liberty Leading The People is the finalized pictures based on the sketches of the July Revolutionary Street Fight, and the whole painting takes the form of a top-down composition. The main color of this painting is red, white and blue. In the background of thick smoke, the red flag is more outstanding, and the strong color contrast makes the picture enthusiastic and encourages people to move forward and give strength. In addition, the artist uses the rich colors to repeat the French flag, thus further emphasizing the power of the French people. By using the same color on the revolutionary's tie and the Statue of Liberty, the artist's awards are cleverly combined to represent freedom and the people. More importantly, the use of these colors on the entire canvas creates a sense of unity. As for the use of light, it can be seen from the painting that the goddess of Liberty is the brightest part of the whole painting, and a beam of light descends from the sky, illuminating the French flag and the people who fought for freedom. The ingenious use of light means that dark of feudalism will end and light of freedom will come. This work evokes the people's desire for freedom and the determination to overthrow the feudal rule, but also pays tribute to the heroes who bravely fight for the country and freedom. Brushstroke is a key part of this painting, this painting is rich in style, connected with long and large continuous strokes and small and separate independent strokes. The painter portrayed the painting with his unique free and expressive brushstrokes. The combination of the pyramidal composition and the perfect color match avoids the chaos of the scene.


The reaction of the general public to the work was not well recorded but it was concluded that the painting attract enormous attention and visit. Some professionals criticized that the painting was realism ignoble and argued that there is contraction among the allegorical Liberty and the context as a whole. Some other believe that it is a combination of the artistic pursuit of the artist and the truth to the reality . The use of earthy colors is greatly appreciated as well. I addition, there are also discussions regarding the meaning of the Liberty and the young woman. People question whether the young woman is of the people or the liberty or both since a true allegory should be a character both alive and symbolic. The work of the artist expresses and brings together the ideas and the spirit at the particular or during a specific event. The art iself is a reaction to the social changes and reflects the emotions during that event. Thus, it can be regarded as a response to the socio political evolutions and the historical conditions (Adams, 2018). Romanticism is used to create the paintings and to depict the reaction to the events and transformations, as well as the reflection of violence, heroism, and terror (HL, 1982). It demonstrates the artistic the preference of the period and the changes in the society value in the romantic period. The painting is also a piece of propaganda which symbolizes the wining of the French people and the the purity of the revolutionary and serves as the reflection of the campaign for change and liberty.


In the realm of art, interpretation involves the attribution of meaning to works. In the art analysis philosophy of Anglo-American culture, the points of views on interpretation of art can be categorized into two types: intentionalism and anti-intentionalism (Lavender, 1997). The anti-intentionalist believes that the interpretation of art is relied upon the linguistic and literary convention and reject the influence of the author’s intention (Livingston, 1998). Thus, the art is of autonomy regarding its meaning and other prosperities related to aesthesis. In contrast, the intentionalism states that the author’s actual intention should be taken into consideration when interpretation the work. Similarly, one can also divide the interpretation into isolationism and contextualism. Isolationism holds that the historical background and the artist’s experience is irrelevant to the intepreation of the artwork(Hick, 2017). On the contrary, contextualism believes that the work of art should always be linked to the context and the background, including the historical background and the artist’s experience. This study will follow the contextualism and intentionalism approach and link the interpretation and appreciation of the art work with the background and the artist’s intention. The painting was initiated and completed during the same year when event of the July Revolution of 1830 occurred. Delacroix would have people to believe that everyone can be revolutionary. In fact, in his letter to his bother within three month of the July Revolution, the artist wrote: “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”, which reveals the intention of the artist is to use painting to restore good spirits for revolution (Korshak, 1987). The artist has explicitly expressed his intention for the creation of this piece of art work, which can also be clearly reflected through the characters and the content in the painting.


According to the research of Groys, art has its power in the world and it is closely related to politics in terms of the struggles for recognition being waged (Groys, 2008). The desire is more than satisfaction but social legitimacy. It helps to establish earnings from thin air and measure the culture and the changes in the course of civilization. Its power of symbolism has never been ignored in history. John Stewart Mill once argued “Art is but the employment of the powers of Nature for an end” (Ruckstuhl, 1916). Liberty Leading the People was created during the and depicted the story of Trois Glorieuses - the Parisian uprising in July 1830. The painting commemorated the July Revolution in 1830 that toppled King Charles X in France. The work has the power of symbolization as Liberty is both an allegorical goddess figure and a strong woman. In addition, the fighters following her consists of a mix of class of people from the bourgeoisie to the student to the urban workers. The work demonstrates their fierceness and determination. Some argue that the painting might have influence on the work by Victor Hugo' in his work Les Misérables. Particularly, the character of Gavroche is regarded to be influenced by the pistol-wielding boy in the painting. The work Les Misérables tells a story regarding the June Rebellion that happened two years after the July Revolution in 1830 and the similarly (Marrinan, 2009), the rebellion elements made the removal of the work from public sights. Moreover, the creation of the Liberty Enlightening the World by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, which is also known as the Statue of Liberty in New York City. The statue was given to the US by the French and the statue demonstrates a more immovable and stable stance than the painting. Besides, an engraved version of the painting was coined in the 100 franc note during the period of 1978 to 1995. In addition to statue and novel, the painting also influenced on classical music (Pinkney, 1961). The Symphony No. 6 of George Antheil is named after Delacroix and admitted that the symphony was under the influence of the painting Liberty Leading the People. Similarly, the painting also inspired the music of Coldplay and was used as the album cover from the Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends.


The work of Eugène Delacroix Liberty Leading the People has unique and importance influence many later art works, including statue, painting, and music. It is closely related to the historical event of the July Revolution of 1830 and to the personal intention of the artist to restore the emotion feelings. The interpretation and the analysis of the work cannot be separated from the historical background and the personal biography of the artist. The personalization of the symbolization effect leaves many legacies behind. The work has demonstrated the joy of revolution and the sacrifices for revolution since the artist also acknowledge that the element of violence is part of the pursuit of freedom.


Adams, L. S. 2018. The methodologies of art: An introduction, Routledge.

Delacroix, E. 1830. Liberty Leading the People (1830).

Farrell, L. 2000. O Liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name! Bmj,321,578.

Groys, B. 2008. Art power, MIT Press.

Harvey, D. 1985. Consciousness and the urban experience: Studies in the history and theory of capitalist urbanization, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hick, D. H. 2017. Introducing Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, Bloomsbury Publishing.

HL, I. V. A. 1982. Comparative Study.

Korshak, Y. 1987. The Liberty cap as a revolutionary symbol in America and France. Smithsonian Studies in American Art,1,53-69.

Lavender, L. 1997. Intentionalism, anti-intentionalism, and aesthetic inquiry: Implications for the teaching of choreography. Dance Research Journal,29,23-42.

Livingston, P. 1998. Intentionalism in aesthetics. New Literary History,29,831-846.

Marrinan, M. 2009. Romantic Paris: Histories of a Cultural Landscape, 1800-1850, Stanford University Press.

Pinkney, D. H. 1961. A new look at the French revolution of 1830. The Review of Politics,23,490-506.

Ruckstuhl, F. W. 1916. What Is Art? A Definition. The Art World,1,21-28.

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