The dynamic action of this painting is striking from the first glance. A woman raises a flag high in the air. A ragtag assortment of fighters follow her into battle. Bodies of the dead and the dying are strewn about on the ground. A boy carries a pistol in each hand, his right hand high above his head.
Eugène Delacroix masterfully depicts the French Revolution of 1830, a.k.a., the July Revolution, in this remarkable painting. The woman holding the flag is the personification of Liberty. The fighters are Parisians who took to the streets to overthrow King Charles X. The man in the top hat wielding a rifle is said to be Delacroix himself, who took part in the revolution.
Notice how diverse the group of fighters is. Often depictions of battles show a long phalanx of men who look nearly identical to one another. This is certainly not the case in “Liberty Leading the People.” Young and old, rich and poor, fair and dark – all are united in the battle for freedom.
Notice also the pyramidal composition of “Liberty.” Liberty’s right hand forms the apex of the pyramid. The corpses on the street form the pyramid’s base. Delacroix is one side of the pyramid and the boy with two pistols is the opposite side. In harmony with the pyramid is the tricolor flag, red-white-and-blue representing the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. There is also a man crawling at the feet of Liberty wearing the symbolic colors red, white, and blue. This character is said to represent the French worker.
Though Delacroix belonged to the Romantic painters, he would become a significant influence on the Impressionist school. He uses a variety of brushstrokes, from long, sweeping ones to short, fine ones. His characters are neither static nor dull. Instead, they are physically moving and charged with emotion. Just as his Impressionist successors would, Delacroix captures the essence of a single moment. Still, it is truly a Romantic painting in the sense that it is more concerned with conveying emotion than it is in depicting a moment as realistically as possible.
Update: The Economist featured a cover on June 29th, 2013 that parodied Delacroix’s painting and alluded to protests from 1848 to 2013. Check it out:http://www.economist.com/printedition/covers/2013-06-27/ap-e-eu-la-me-na-uk-0http://www.economist.com/printedition/covers/2013-06-27/ap-e-eu-la-me-na-uk-0
Nadeem Alam, “Critical Analysis: Liberty Leading The People, A Painting By Delacroix”