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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Eugene Delacroix

In a country whose artistic tradition is packed nearly to the ceiling with paintings, if one were to ask the average Frenchman which of them is perhaps the greatest work ever produced in his country the answer might surprise you.  If we, as outsiders were to consider this question, a work by David, Ingres, perhaps Manet or Monet might come to mind. The Frenchman would probably not even bat an eyelash before choosing a work by Eugene Delacroix (pronounced DEL-a-qua) entitled The Twenty-eighth of July; Liberty Leading the People. If the name doesn't ring a bell, picture a battle-scarred city with a ragtag civilian mob clambering over the dead bodies of their countrymen led by a bare breasted amazon of a woman bearing the French tricolors. On her right is a top-hatted gentleman armed with a rifle while on her left, a twelve-year-old boy brandishes a pistol. In the foreground, more dead bodies.   
The Twenty-eight of July;
Liberty leading the People,
1830, Eugene Delacroix

 Delacroix was born in 1798 and followed largely in the footsteps of his friend and mentor, Theodore Gericault who died in 1824, as leader of the Romantic movement in France. He had a consuming interest in literary drama and a dedication to themes dealing with personal and political freedom. Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, though an allegorical painting, was based upon a contemporary event in 1830, a fierce, three-day uprising in the streets of Paris during which a republican mob forced the abdication of Charles X. Much of the street fighting took place near Delacroix studio. Delacroix is said to have known all three of the main figures personally, particularly the boy who had killed a royal soldier before being badly wounded himself.   
Though the painting gained entry into the Salon of 1831 it was not well-received by the critics. The king liked it though. King Louis Phillippe, the "citizen king", bought it for a very high price and had the 8 by 10 foot canvas installed in the Luxembourg Palace. Though the painting certainly is a masterpiece of French art, it's also a very powerful piece of art propaganda. As the new king's own political future became more and more uncertain, the painting began to annoy him. He had it taken down and returned to Delacroix, who pawned it off on his Aunt Felicite. Later, after the revolution, the painting was returned to the government and exhibited once more in the Salon of 1848. It is often considered the visual equivalent of the French national anthem, Le Marseillaise.

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