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Revolution, a word that the Merriam-Webster dictionary describes as “a sudden,
radical, or complete change”, a word that has given workers and peasants the
bravery of a thousand lions and that has scared and diminished ruling classes from
big imposing figures to little doves shaking of fear. Revolution is such a big word
that from the many that have over time tried to capture its essence only few have
For me the one person that has captured it the most is without any second thought
Eugene Delacroix with his painting “La Liberté Guidant le Peuple” (Liberty Leading
the People in English). This painting by itself is magnificent, the color in the sky
and the flag, the detail in everything from everybody’s clothing to the expressions
on the faces of the people are incredible. However for me what really fascinates me
about it is its symbolism and the historical context beneath it.
For me to describe the painting first it’s important to point out the actual size of
the painting which is 102.4 in × 128.0 in, it is a large canvas normally used in
romanticism for epic scenes which I would guess at first is striking. First we see a
large group of people on the left side of the canvas following a feminine figure
standing in an imposing way at the center of the painting leaning a little to the
right of it. This feminine figure is bare breasted, has on her right hand a tricolor
flag (red, white and blue) and on her left hand she has a rifle with a musket. She is
standing over the rumbles of wood and stone from what we could presume was a
barricade. At her left side in the background we can see a crowd with sabers,
pistols and rifles marching along with her, on the middle-ground are three
masculine figures, two of them are standing side by side, which one of them has
laborer clothes on while the other has a suit and tall hat. On her right side we can
see in the background the silhouettes of some buildings (most likely Paris due the
architectonic style and historical context) from which we can see smoke coming
out, in the middle-ground is a boy in a joyful stand equipped with a pistol in each of
his hands. In the first plane of the painting we see laying three presumably death
bodies, two of which have military uniforms still on, while the other one lies
mostly unclothed only with his underwear, shirt and one sock on, all of them
whose presence is diminished by the predominant feminine figure. It is important
to indicate that most likely these bodies are of the people who were behind the
barricade. One of the last details that caught my eye was in the middle of the
painting, in the feet of the feminine figure was lying a woman obstructing its was,
this woman can be seen holding the feminine figure clothing trying to stand up. All
of the people in the painting, excluding the feminine figure, are seen in clothing
characteristic of the XIX century.
When I first saw the painting the first thing that caught my attention was the
feminine figure standing in the center of the painting. This “woman” is seen leading
the march of the people into the fight. She is turning her head to see the people
behind her as she raises her right arm placing in the highest point in the painting
the revolutionary tricolor flag (today’s French flag) while keeping her other hand
in a lower level holding a rifle with a bayonet in it. It is interesting that after seeing
it for a while I noticed as liberty is in the center and is holding the revolutionary
flag in the highest the painting has a triangular composition. This “woman” is
wearing a peplos, a yellow garment typical used by Greek women during the
classical period (500 BC) leaving her bare breasted for the most part. This was at
first a very strange for me to stare at. It was strange for me at the beginning to see
a clear breast in the open in a painting of such a clear depth and meaning. But as
you keep seeing it in some way you get the idea, the idea that she has to do that,
she has to let us know that she is our mother.
At first I thought she had a weird hairstyle but then it seemed obvious that she was
wearing a cap, a Phrygian cap. This cap has served along the history as a symbol of
freedom and liberation, and it’s identified as a characteristically part of the figure
known as Marianne. The Marianne is a figure created in the middle of the XIX
century as the symbol of fight for freedom; it decorates most of French
government buildings as she represents the third estate in French society, the
people. We can assume Delacroix took her to represent the human figure of liberty.
The last thing that I got to notice from her is that she is standing barefoot, possibly
as a sign of humility. Bringing all together, Delacroix’s representation of the liberty
is a feminine figure leading her people, with a Phrygian cap as it relates to the
figure of Marianne, a peplos representing the society that created democracy, in
one hand holding a rifle to fight while in the other rising the revolutionary flag
representing hope to keep that fight alive, and barefoot showing its humility. The
detail and symbolism in just this feminine figure is something that never stops to
fascinate me as she is the figure of power and mercy, a figure of respect and love, a
figure of fight and peace; she stands for what the revolution does.
As I said the tricolor flag seems to be the tip of the painting’s composition what
gives it special value. The French flag that is being held by the figure of liberty,
those colors, those beautiful colors seeing jump out of the canvas. This flag
represent at first the colors of Paris, red and blue, and the white as a
representation of the House of Bourbon in Europe, this colors stand for the French
spirit for the fight for rights. An interesting thing to notice is that the flag is seen
waving. Waving because of the wind of a new republic. What these different colors
makes you feel and what they stand for is what really takes my breath away as
if I were standing in the middle of a deep valley with giant rocks rising at my
sides and the complexity of everything in front of me. We first start with the red,
it makes me taste the blood and realize the fight that is taking place all around
me, the bright red, seen aesthetically as a figure of strength and dominance,
stand in such a way that it is just impossible not to look at it. The white, a white
so pure that I couldn’t believe it is in the middle of the mud fight, in the middle of
the blood and dirt, surrounded by smoke and powder, as bright as the spirit of
the people behind it pushing it to lead France. Finally the blue, as a symbol of
freedom and justice, a color so loyal that I can feel it protecting me with its
deepness and maturity.
But liberty’s march and the revolutionary flag wouldn’t mean anything if it wasn’t
for the people backing it. This is showed very symbolically in the painting as
liberty is shown backed by a group of people marching at her pace and
direction to some place behind the painting’s perspective most likely to keep
fighting. The first real person that I noticed was the boy standing at the right of
the Liberty, I noticed such fierce and bravery in his face that it was hard to
believe it was just a little kid. He is the representation of the new society, a new
generation of French willing to fight bravely for liberation and freedom even if
they can only carry two pistols at the time. The other people to notice about in
the painting are the two men standing on the other side of the Liberty; these are
the first men standing behind the liberty. These men are very important to how
this painting fascinates me with its detail. The first time I saw the picture I only
saw two men side by side, nothing more. But after a while I started to noticed
some details about them, they were totally different. The man closest to the
Liberty is wearing a suit, a top hat, is equipped with a rifle and have whiter skin
while the man to his side is wearing an over-all, has a sable and has a darker
color of skin. The traits of the first man are characteristic of the French
Bourgeoisie, the middle class, while we can presume the other man is part of
the working class. Though they came from different social classes they appear
as brothers in the fight. The French revolution was the 95% of the population,
part of the third state, against the highest classes part of the first and second
state, the clergy and nobility. It didn’t matter if you were the worker and I was
the boss, we were in the fight together, side-by-side. The effect of the corpses
lying in the ground is very interesting for me because although they are placed
in the first plain their presence is completely diminished by the figure of Liberty.
The two corpses laying in the lower right part of the painting are obviously royal
soldiers, killed by the rebels during the fight. However there is a third corpse in
the lower left side, separated from the soldiers’ corpses. He is not wearing a
uniform or really anything from what we can identify him. He represents the
sacrifices that the society has to make; either soldiers or rebels both are human
beings. The last human figure I was able to identify is a woman grabbing Liberty
by its clothes. This woman begging the liberty to stop the fight or maybe to just
help her as she was probably injured from what we get to see in the painting.
This is another important representation about what the French revolution was,
it was very dirt war between everyone, neighbors at one point started to point at
each other to get the other one executed by the guillotine, it was a very pure
movement that lived long enough to see itself become the villain. That was the
French revolution, your brother begging you for mercy or help and you having
just to ignore it for the greater good, the good that would benefit the most, and if
your brother was not part of that most, well too bad for him because you just
had to move along and continue with the fight. That was one of the things that I
must remember from the painting, the look of that woman’s face of pain and
disgrace just grabbing the leg of the liberty in such a way of desperation that
you could feel it.
All these elements put together make a very clear statement, the French
revolution had many tones, ideas, as well as very thin lines between rights and
wrongs. This painting is able to put all of this in the faces of the persons and in
every little detail. That’s what fascinates me about it, how an image can say so
much and with such strength.