the secrets of “The Marseillaise in painting”

the secrets of “The Marseillaise in painting”
the secrets of “The Marseillaise in painting”

Pfor your uncle, Sunday historian, there is no doubt: the famous masterpiece by Eugène Delacroix, painted in 1830, Liberty Leading the People, is an ode to the French Revolution! But the oil on canvas is in truth inspired by an event which took place forty years later, the revolution of July 1830.

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While the monarchy was restored, King Charles X decided to heavily restrict press freedom. A movement, largely composed of journalists and editors, is rising against these restrictions. Riots, taking place from July 27 to 29 in Paris, caused the fall of Charles X and the accession of Louis Philippe.

A painting considered too realistic

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if this painting is often wrongly associated with the French Revolution. Virginie Cauchi, doctor in Art History, and author of the work Eugène Delacroix and criticism (editions Mare and Martin, 2022), sees no problem with it, on the contrary: “It’s a painting that fits all revolutions. Liberty Leading the People drives the point home in our very demanding, vengeful temperament. It is The Marseillaise in painting! » she explains to Point.

However, when Eugène Delacroix presented his painting to the public in 1831 at the Paris Salon, no one sang the national anthem. The reception is very mixed. Immediately, many are struck by the artist’s very (too) realistic brushwork. Delacroix’s raw and uncompromising style, which shows the bodies of the rebels naked, dirty, bloodied, and the corpses already stiffened by death, is destabilizing. “However, in 1830, the neoclassical school was still influential, and romanticism was not unanimously accepted. We are used to idealized bodies, like David does,” says the Eugène Delacroix specialist.

Wearing a Phrygian cap, the tricolor raised to the sky, bare breasts, it is impossible not to notice this young woman, who has no identity. But Eugène Delacroix finds a name for it: “Liberty”, quite simply. He makes it an allegory of this cardinal value for him, the humanist.

“A woman of the people”

At the time, bare breasts were already populating museum galleries. But one detail shocks the public: Madame has hair under her arms. “She is a woman of the people that you could meet in the street. While in the heads of many, then, at the time, an allegory must be idealized. But for Delacroix, freedom is human, it is in us,” believes the painter’s specialist.

In 1831, another detail raised eyebrows among the public. Most of the painter’s colleagues used their best brushstrokes to paint the portrait of the “official winners” of the Trois Glorieuses, with Louis Philippe at the head. Eugène Delacroix represents the people in the plural. “For many of the journalists who took part in the revolts, seeing themselves mixed up with the mob in this picture does not work. He is criticized for being too popular,” says Virginie Cauchi.

Your uncle, Sunday historian, does not budge, he now assures you that the little boy, standing to the right of “La Liberté”, beret screwed on his head and revolvers in each hand, inspired the mythical character of the Miserable : Gavroche. At the time, it is very probable, but few sources attest to it. One thing is certain, the careers of Hugo and Delacroix share several similarities. Both figures of romanticism, they were subject to similar criticism, notably at the time of the publication of Miserable.

“But Delacroix, although fervent humanist, republican and very deeply patriotic, did not make his work a support for his political opinions,” explains Virginie Cauchi. The painter, unlike the writer, prefers to let his art speak, rather than openly engaging in state affairs. In 1848, on the occasion of the February Revolution, Victor Hugo even criticized him for not having made a new Liberty Leading the People. But Delacroix, true to himself, persists: “If I do not fight for the homeland, at least I will paint for it,” he repeats.

Since September 20, 2023, the Louvre, deprived of one of its greatest masterpieces, has impatiently awaited the return of this restored oil on canvas. The shades, darkened by time, are being reinvigorated. “Liberty” will soon regain all its splendor. May she continue to guide the people, even if only in painting.

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