Marijke Jonker, “On Asp and Cobra You Will Tread…:” animals as allegories of transformation in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Marijke Jonker, “On Asp and Cobra You Will Tread…:” animals as allegories of transformation in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. Published on ART-Dok; Publishing Platform for Art History and Visual Studies of the University of Heidelberg, 2019.

This book offers a new interpretation of the meaning – political, artistic and personal – of Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People. Instead of taking existing interpretations of this painting as my point of departure, I describe it in all its complexity, giving special attention to details that seem to have been missed by other scholars. From this I deduce that instead of offering his public a straightforward allegory, Delacroix invited it to solve a visual riddle and to decipher the several layers of meaning of each figure and of the allegory as a whole, relying on the cultural and historical knowledge that he shared with Salon viewers. Many parts of this shared knowledge, for instance Grandville’s contemporary political caricatures, anti-Bourbon songs and poems, Gallo-Roman monuments, legends and fairy tales are identified here for the first time as sources for Liberty Leading the People. New reasons for Delacroix’s interest in sources that have already been identified by other authors, for instance Auguste Barbier’s poem La Curée or Gros’s Battlefield at Eylau, are brought to light.
I interpret Liberty Leading the People as a powerful image of the transformation of the peuple bestial (bestial people), the ancien régime’s name for the lowest orders of society, into free human beings, who are reconquering the liberties that they possessed before the subjugation of Gaul by the forebears of the Bourbons. The barricade fighters of the July Revolution are depicted as people who have just left their existence as hunted wild animals; they now hunt their former oppressors, the Bourbons and their allies. Once killed, these change into monstrous animals: a serpent, a lion, and a dragon, the monsters that are mentioned in Psalm 91, the psalm from which this book takes its title. I assume that Delacroix was interested in Psalm 91 because it could stand symbol for the arrogance of the Bourbons and their allies during the Restoration.
I conclude that the political message of Liberty Leading the People is essentially peaceful: it forms a tribute to the July Revolution, the July Monarchy and the new king Louis-Philippe, and portrays the barricade fighters as victims changing into heroic freedom fighters. With this work, meant as the crowning achievement of his early career, Delacroix offers his services to the new king, without compromising on his artistic independence. In Liberty Leading the People Delacroix expresses central themes of his early work in a new and wholly original way, as symbols of the transformation of France during the July Days.
I also conclude that Liberty Leading the People ridicules Louis-Philippe’s relatives the Bourbons, their followers, their Catholic state religion, and Delacroix’s rivals, the artists who had worked for them. Precisely this aspect of the painting demonstrates that Delacroix, while celebrating a new future for France, was preoccupied with the past, his family’s misfortunes during the Bourbon Restoration, and his own career, and misjudged the sensitivities of the new king and government. The lack of understanding of political reality demonstrated by Delacroix in Liberty Leading the People explains its lukewarm reception by the government.


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