Retrospective

From the Archives: Walter Pach on Eugène Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People,’ in 1946

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830.

VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

With an Eugène Delacroix retrospective currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, we turn back to the July 1946 issue of ARTnews, in which the artist and critic Walter Pach addressed the French painter’s masterpiece, Liberty Leading the People (1830). Written on the occasion of the painting having traveled from the Louvre in Paris to the Met for a special exhibition, the essay includes Pach’s meditations on what the painting might mean for contemporary audiences. (Pach refers to the painting, which is not in the current Delacroix retrospective, as La Barricade in his essay.) He notes that the Met put the painting on view as a “salute of France to our leading art institution on its seventy-fifth anniversary, and it is doubly appropriate for the purpose—as an expression of the idea of freedom, and as a great work of art.” —Alex Greenberger

“La Barricade in America”
By Walter Pach
July 1946

When the Louvre reopened after the liberation in 1944, the first picture to be hung was LA BARRICADE by Eugène Delacroix. The French were eager to see it again, for it had been their national symbol of the heroic Resistance movement, which did so much to aid the triumphant sweep of the Allies when they were ready, just two years ago, to begin the expulsion of the invader. Now the painting is on loan to the Metropolitan (to Aug. 1), as the salute of France to our leading art institution on its seventy-fifth anniversary, and it is doubly appropriate for the purpose—as an expression of the idea of freedom, and as a great work of art.

Though the two matters are intimately connected in this unique example of Delacroix’s genius, they may be recalled separately. The July Revolution of 1830, continuing the work of the vast overturn of forty years before, marked another step toward the final overthrow of the Bourbons, who had returned to the throne after the fall of Napoleon. It is important to see in the picture before us a renewal of the spirit which made the French Revolution, for only through such understanding can we explain the varied fortunes of the masterpiece.

It was painted because Delacroix was on fire with the idea of the scene—a very different one from the two historical subjects assigned him by the government of Louis Philippe when it came into power. Yet the “Bourgeois King” decorated the artist with the Legion of Honor, and bought the painting from the Salon of 1831, at a price of 3,000 francs. Exhibited at the Luxembourg, the subject aroused such fear of future disturbances that the work had to be withdrawn from public view. Delacroix was permitted to resume possession of the picture, and concealed it in a country estate of his family. In 1837, when the artist was a candidate for election to the Academy, to replace Baron Gérard who had just died, he mentioned LE 28 JUILLET 1830 among the pictures “which he takes the liberty of recalling to the indulgent memory of the Academy.” (It was just twenty years too soon; after repeated candidacies, the master was elected only in 1857.) The variant of the title as given by Delacroix in 1837 is only one of several; a drawing by him, done for engraving, is entitled, in his wording, UN FAIT INCONNU DE JUILLET, 1830, and today the painting is also known as LIBERTY GUIDING THE PEOPLE ON THE BARRICADE.

In 1848, the picture was again shown at the Luxembourg. In a few weeks, however, it had to be returned once more to the painter because of its controversial, inflammatory subject. When he showed it at the Exposition Universelle of 1855, its power to disturb had apparently subsided, and in 1874 it entered the Louvre to remain permanently on its walls. Louis Hourticq, commenting on it, remarked, “This picture is shown only during republican times.”

Yet it is not alone a high peak in the mountain chain of European painting: it is a work whose modernity of idea must remain perennial. In earlier centuries the Old World had seen the Church as the great patron of art; later on, the kings and nobles took its place. The royal epoch ended when French philosophers enunciated libertarian principles—which our Revolution, even before that of France, put into effect. An important rôle in the fomenting of revolutionary ideas had fallen to an artist, Jacques Louis David, whom Delacroix called the “renovator of our school.” He recognized the giant stature of the older master, even while making bold departure from David’s painting. Only once in his career did Delacroix follow the political example of that member of the Convention which guided the Revolution: it was when, in the thrilling page now before us, he recorded the urge toward liberty of his own time.

There is, indeed, strong reason to see him as directly connected with the “Three Glorious Days” of July, 1830. Many years later, Alexandre Dumas used the expression “false legends” to characterize the report that Delacroix took part in the scene he portrayed; but the painter himself gives the strongest testimony on the question. For, as is shown by Raymond Escholier in his magnificent book on the master, one has only to look at Géricault’s likeness of the young Delacroix, or the early self-portrait (the one which Villot engraved), in order to be convinced that the tall-hatted figure with the blunderbuss, behind the standard-bearer, is no other than the painter of the picture. His father had played a great part in the Revolution of his day, two of the artist’s brothers had followed the tricolor of liberation in its sweep across Europe (one of them fell at Friedland, the other attained the rank of general), and if Eugène Delacroix did not, as Dumas affirms, share in the physical combat of the July Revolution, his picture is final evidence that he contributed to the movement through his art.

An aristocrat in every impulse, skeptical about the participation of the artist in politics (as is shown especially by that entry of May 26, 1855 in his JOURNAL where he scoffs at the “republican” painters who pay court to Price Napoleon), an admirer of the eighteenth century, he felt so intensely the surge of new freedom inspiring his period that he could produce this epic.

Delacroix gives us an art that is peculiarly French in its character as a point of balance between the past and the future. Deeply schooled in the classics of literature as well as of painting, he was, on one occasion, to reply pretty stiffly to a man who had associated him with a Romanticist of whom he did not wholly approve. It was with a desire to compliment him that his interlocutor had said, “Oh, M. Delacroix, you are the Berlioz of painting!” The answer he drew forth was, “You are mistaken, sir, I am a pure Classicist.” Yet it was the interest of the Romantic school in the Revolution which dictated the unique work which is now at the Metropolitan. At first the painter projected no more than a realistic, even journalistic rendering of the scenes he had witnessed in the uprising. A complete drawing in outline registers this initial stage in the picture’s evolution. Numerous other studies followed, the distinctive one being that of the symbolical figure, LA LIBERTÉ. Historians of the period affirm that Delacroix was influenced in developing his conception by some verses in LA CURÉE by Henri-Auguste Barbier, where the poet pictures a woman leading the revolt of the people amid gunfire and the rolling of drums. One thinks also of the glorious MARSEILLAISE of Rude’s group on the Arc de Triomphe, evolved contemporaneously with LA BARRICADE.

More important than Barbier for the inspiration of the work were memories of Géricault and of Goya. Delacroix had posed for a figure in his friend’s controversial, almost incendiary canvas, THE RAFT OF THE MEDUSA, and had copied Goya’s etchings, LOS CAPRICHOS, where the great Spaniard gave free rein to his political opinions. In a vaudeville ditty called THE SALON OF 1831, a rhymester of the time celebrated the revolutionary aspects of LA BARRICADE, but fell under the influence of the conventional critics who, unable to make their usual reproaches against the drawing and painting of Delacroix, spoke of his “pale sketch” as failing to render the effect of sunlight. Even one of his severest critics, Delécluze, the pupil and biographer of David, had written in the JOURNAL DES DÉBATS that the picture was “painted with verve” and “colored in parts with rare talent.” But this praise, so unusual with the critic, was scarcely even a prelude to the magnificent pages which Gautier, Silvestre, Baudelaire, and one writer after another, down to our day, were to devote to the great painting and its creator. Doubtless the most decisive statement was the one which André Suarès, published thirty-five years ago when he said, “The whole of modern art issues from Delacroix.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the July 1946 issue of ARTnews on page 42 under the title “La Barricade in America.”

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