When the RCN used the image of the bare-breasted Liberty from the iconic Delacroix painting as a front cover for our pamphlet, Republicanism, Socialism and Democracy, this provoked a debate in the SSP. Catriona Grant, leading socialist feminist, and member of SSP Edinburgh no 2 branch contributes to the debate.

Why are Liberty’s breasts bared in Delacroix’s painting – Liberty Leading the People? A recent discussion in the SSP raged for a week or two whether Delacroix’s work of Liberty Leading the People was sexist. Is it revolutionary or sexist? Can it be both?

Eugene Delacroix’s Romantic painting of 1830 is probably Delacroix’s most famous work – the bare breasted and footed goddess warrior, triumphantly leading the Parisians with the tricolour in her hand to their ultimate goal for liberty, fraternity and equality! (Sisterhood was never mentioned).

Liberty Leading the People commemorates the July Revolution of 1830 in France, which toppled the Emperor Charles X, a generation or so after the French Revolution. In the painting, Liberty leads the people over the bodies of the fallen. Stridently and encouragingly she holds up the tricolour of the French Revolution in one hand and brandishes a bayonet in the other, the dead being her pedestal, her plinth to declare the revolution – they are victorious.

Why does Liberty in the painting have her breasts on show? Does it matter? Did her dress fall off her shoulders by accident or was she just tardy in her dress? Traditionally, in Romantic paintings, this meant that she was not like other bourgeois, proletariat or peasant women, but having her breasts on show indicated power and even supernatural strength. The bare breasted lady is indeed not a lady at all but a symbol personified by Marianne – a French goddess-like figure and “robust woman of the people”. She symbolises the French Republic. Liberty in Delacroix’s painting is no ordinary woman – she is a revolutionary goddess! She is a goddess-like warrior, who symbolises the Revolution and the Republic, and not a depiction of women’s status in society of the time. This painting pre-dates Impressionists, who recorded what they saw, rather than depicting symbols in a romantic way. Would it have been possible to paint a French mortal woman in this stance? At this time probably not. Only a symbolic woman could have such a role in a piece of historic propaganda rather than a real woman.

So is Delacroix sexist in his subject matter? Well, of course he is! In 1830, it would almost be impossible not to be sexist or patriarchal as the dominant society, even in revolutionary France, was sexist at this time, as was the rest of the Western World. However is the painting sexual and misogynistic? No, I don’t think it is. It’s subject matter is not about sex or sexuality but about the power of the revolution, the breasts are symbolic, not a pair of pneumatic boobs of a ‘page three stunna’.

But what does this painting stand for – is it a revolutionary painting, or an excuse just to see another pair of breasts in a gallery alongside hundreds, even thousands, of other pairs of breasts? As the Guerrilla Girls tell us, only 3% of the paintings in the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, are by women, and of the paintings of women, 83% of them are naked – this is replicated all over the world in art galleries. Women have been objectified over the centuries and so have their body parts, Delacroix is not a feminist but a bourgeois 19th century painter capturing the mood and propagandising the only way he knows how – through Romantic imagery.

Who was Delacroix and why did he paint this picture?

Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix was born on April 26, 1798. He was the son of the ambassador of the French Republic to Holland. His father had been very active during the revolution. Despite his parents dying when he was a little boy, he would be very aware of the revolution and the terror that reigned afterwards.

He began to paint at age of 17. He was hugely influenced by the Romanticist period of painting and later went on to influence the Impressionist movement, particularly Cezanne and Picasso, who copied his paintings. Romantic paintings are paintings, depictions of fantasy, and an expression of feeling – of love, of fear, of desire and even, of revolution. They are emotional paintings not paintings of reason, or of fact.

In 1830, Delacroix watched the fighting in central Paris alongside his friend and fellow painter Eugene Lami. This fighting had erupted not far from their studio. Delacroix was not a participant but a spectator. He wrote to his brother, Since I have not fought and conquered for the fatherland I can at least paint on its behalf. That’s why he painted
Liberty Leading the People.

Liberty Leading the People is sort of a political poster, it’s the ‘No Poll Tax’ poster of its time. It marks the day when the people rose and dethroned the Bourbon King.

Delacroix made a number of sketches. They contained street fighters, individually and in groups. He decided to construct his artwork around the allegorical female representing Liberty. This was a daring concept – having the bloodstained victims of an actual battle, setting a high-flown symbolic figure in the middle of the dirt and triumphant on the bodies, not of our victims, but of her comrades.

Liberty Leading the People is a two-dimensional painting. Delacroix uses linear perspective to give the effect of 3-dimensional space. He uses aerial perspective with the city in the back being smaller and the sky is blue and grey. The battle of July Revolution of 1830 is the subject matter. The meaning of the image, the content, is the people wanting liberty, and the battle the people went through to gain liberty. Liberty leads the people on. Delacroix uses these images to tell the story – looking at the painting you know that there is a victory, a triumph – even if you are not aware of the situation.

The focal point of this work is Liberty. The emphasis is on Liberty because she is the most important figure in the work. Liberty stands out more than the other figures because she is carrying the flag with bright colours of red, blue and white. According to people who know things about fine art, Liberty Leading the People is very much in scale and proportion. The art is in proportion because of the relationship between the parts to each other. No figure is larger than any other figure. An example is the young man to the right of Liberty. He is not larger than the older men to the left of Liberty. The figures are in scale because the figures are the normal or expected size. The shape (hands, arms, feet, torso, head) is all in the right scale to the actual bodily parts of a person.

Delacroix’s spirit is fully involved in its implementation of Liberty Leading the People. He executes the work with the heroic poses of the people fighting for liberty, the outstretched figure of Liberty, the dead figures, and the attitudes of the people following Liberty. Delacroix has given this painting a sense of full participation, no one is passive in the painting. This work has been called the first overtly political work of modern painting.

Shown at the Salon of 1831, the painting was understood in various ways and caused quite an uproar. Working class, a fishwife, and a whore is what the figure of Liberty was called by Outraged of Paris. Critics said that the painting was a slander of the five glorious days, that Liberty was ignoble, and that the insurgents represented a rude class of people, urchins and workmen. The newly blossoming bourgeoisie was shocked by the painting – it was seen as crude and unnecessary.

Liberty’s breasts were seen as shocking, despite the fact the majority of Romantic paintings depicted naked women or semi-naked women, because she was active and not passive. Her breasts, on show with her bare feet, indicate her power and strength as opposed to her sexuality – naked or semi naked women are usually reclining or surrounded by other women – rather, she is in an active stance of defiance surrounded by mortal men.

Women in the first French Revolution

But was it so impossible to depict a real woman involved in the revolution other than a fantasy warrior goddess? Did women not play a role in the French Revolutions? Women – working class and peasant women – have always played a political role. They were responsible for putting food on the table, and during times of hardship, such as famine, when bread was unavailable or expensive, women had traditionally marched to the civic centre to beseech the local government to ameliorate their misery. During the first French Revolution, this tradition would be followed, but with one new development. Parisian women no longer marched to the civic centre to petition the local magistrates, but rather they marched first to the royal palace itself. They sent their petitions directly to the king then, later, they marched to the national legislature. It was the women who rattled the gates demanding bread!

Women in France formed clubs and organised. They met together to learn how to become citizens of a great nation, rather than subjects of a king, and to press for specific legislation. These women wanted equality of rights within marriage, the right to divorce, extended rights of widows over property and of widowed mothers over their children, publicly guaranteed educational opportunities for girls (including vocational training for poor girls), public training, licensing, and support for midwives in all provinces, guaranteed right to employment, and the exclusion of men from specific traditionally-female professions, like dress-making.

In August 1791 the Declaration to the Rights of Man was made known by the National Assembly. In September 1791, National Assembly was replaced by a newly elected body, the Legislative Assembly, a constitutional monarchy. This prompted Olympe de Gouge, female revolutionary, to write the Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Citizeness (1791), possibly the best known tract on the rights of women from the period, as a response to the Declaration to the Rights of Man and its silence regarding women.

But the revolution did not deliver male suffrage never mind female suffrage – only men who paid a certain amount of taxes had a say and unemployment was rife. War against foreign forces who wanted to restore King Louis XVI’s power, the return of political instability and the resulting economic hardship, and their desires for sexual equality, all mobilised women once again to act collectively on their own behalf. This resulted in even more marches, more clubs, more petitions, and the increased use of the taxation populaire.

In 1793, the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, created by sans-culotte women, lasted only six months, before it was shut down by authorities. These women were revolutionary, militant feminists! Advocating issues of interest to the radical middle class and the Parisian poor, such as penal reform, occupational training for girls, public morality, and economic reforms. At this time the Jacobins demanded, among other things, that all women wear the Revolutionary dress and cockade (a hat that indicated different factions). A law was duly passed to require all women to put on the proscribed articles and when the Républicaines-révolutionnaires tried to have the law enforced, market women rebelled and petitioned the Convention. The Convention seized their opportunity, dissolved the Society, and outlawed all women’s clubs and associations. The women were seen as anti-revolutionary and as traitors. A period of terror and barbarism reigned in France, but women still rebelled and organised. But by 1794, Olympe de Gouges had been guillotined. The people would not rise up again until 1830 (depicted by Delacroix – could Liberty be Olympe?).

Society of Revolutionary Republican Women Manifesto

The National Assembly, wishing to reform the greatest and most universal of abuses, and to repair the wrongs of a six-thousand-year-long injustice, has decreed and decrees as follows:

  1. All the privileges of the male sex are entirely and irrevocably abolished throughout France;
  2. The feminine sex will always enjoy the same liberty, advantages, rights, and honours as does the masculine sex;
  3. The masculine gender [gendre masculine] will no longer be regarded, even grammatically, as the more noble gender, given that all genders, all sexes, and all beings should be and are equally noble;
  4. That no one will henceforth insert in acts, contracts, obligations, etc., this clause, so common but so insulting for women: That the wife is authorized by her husband before those present, because in the household both parties should enjoy the same power and authority;
  5. That wearing pants [la culotte] will no longer be the exclusive prerogative of the male sex, but each sex will have the right to wear them in turn;
  6. When a soldier has, out of cowardice, compromised French honour, he will no longer be degraded as is the present custom, by making him wear women’s clothing; but as the two sexes are and must be equally honourable in the eyes of humanity, he will henceforth be punished by declaring his gender to be neuter;
  7. All persons of the feminine sex must be admitted without exception to the district and departmental assemblies, elevated to municipal responsibilities and even as deputies to the National Assembly, when they fulfil the requirements set forth in the electoral laws. They will have both consultative and deliberative voices. . . .;
  8. They can also be appointed as magistrates: there is no better way to reconcile the public with the courts of justice than to seat beauty and to see the graces presiding there;
  9. The same applies to all positions, compensations, and military dignities. . .

We are told that Liberty is a symbol, however the women who in the 18th Century penned the above could easily have been Liberty. However they may have worn trousers and had their blousons tightly buttoned up (I would imagine).

For those worried about her breasts being on show forever or her catching cold, Liberty is properly attired by the time she appears as a giant statue guarding over Ellis Island in the US, this time her breasts are covered and instead of a tricolore she holds a torch of justice aloft her head.

Liberty has been printed on stamps and the 100 franc note, she remains a poster girl of the 20th and 21st century – featured on the front cover of the RCN’s Republican Communist magazine, Issue 1 and their pamphlet on republicanism, and on Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution. It is on the front cover of the band, Coldplay’s Viva la Vida album. Liberty Leading the People has inspired many over the decades and centuries.

Long live Liberty!