Revolutions have always been fundamental to the historical process. Moments of sudden, radical change are among the most influential in humankind’s history, and artists of all epochs have used them as a main theme in their body of work.
This is especially notable among French artists due to that nation’s brutal history. From 1789 on, painters focused a great deal on the Revolution and its impact on all layers of society. Moreover, because Bastille Day inaugurated a restless period in the country’s history, the collection of revolutionary artwork grew exponentially with the years; expert masters such as Jacques-Louis David portrayed important people and events in seminal paintings such as The Death of Marat (1793) and The Coronation of Napoleon (1806).
The civil struggle that culminated in an European war also led art into a nostalgic reaction called Romanticism. The movement – which arose out of a counter-reaction to the Enlightenment, one of the main catalysts of the French Revolution – was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and passion and its glorification of nature, mythology, and the past.
One of the exponents of the movement was Frenchman Eugène Delacroix. His large paintings represented a break from the perfectionism of French Neoclassicism and laid the ground for pre-Modernist movements such as Impressionism and Symbolism. Even though most of his work focused on celebrated historical or mythological scenes, one of his most prominent canvases is a representation of an event that took place during his lifetime – les Trois Glorieuses, or the July Revolution, which ousted King Charles X and replaced him with Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans.
July 28: Liberty Leading the People is a celebration of revolution and republicanism. It depicts Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, leading a revolting throng against the decadent monarchy. It is a highly symbolic painting whose various allusive elements evoke an entire society’s transformation.
The urban background on the right stresses the growing impact of the Industrial Revolution in France and Europe, which deepened class rifts and eventually sparked Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Delacroix, nevertheless, juxtaposes that with the eclectic mob on the right. Marianne glances at the two characters in the front – a bourgeois and an urban worker – as if blessing them. Indeed, the patriotic figure exhorts the unity of the French people, calling all social classes to fight together against despotism and oppression. She stands over a pile of dead bodies – presumably monarchists and republicans –, recalling the sacrifices that must be made for freedom and, once more, glorifying revolution. Because Marianne embodies liberty, her position in the painting also echoes the triumph of democratic ideals over unregulated absolutism.Read More