Few artists have had the same enduring influence as Eugène Delacroix, the last painter of the Grand Style, but equally the leader of the French Romantic School and one of the first modern masters. Described by Baudelaire as ‘a poet in painting’, Delacroix also wrote eloquently on art, literature, music and nature.
As an artist striving to capture the interplay between light and form, and fascinated with optical effects and strong colours, he reshaped the pictorial tradition, depicting both classical and unconventional subjects. His innovations inspired the Impressionist movement and paved the way for new styles of painting.
Cézanne, Degas and Van Gogh all copied Delacroix’s compositions and revered him as a pioneer. His bold application of pigment continued to inspire artists well into the the second half of the 20th century, including the likes of Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault, Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso, whose graphic and pictorial series, Women of Algiers, was inspired by Delacroix’s own 1834 painting, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment.
Eugène Delacroix, La liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty Leading the People), 1830. ©Louvre-Lens, France / Bridgeman Images
Delacroix’s greatest painting is the iconic La liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty Leading the People), 1830, which hangs in the Louvre and represents a pivotal moment in French history, when public protests led to the abdication of the deeply unpopular King Charles X and his replacement by King Louis Philippe. On 14 December 2017, the only known sketch in oil that fully outlines the intended final composition for La liberté guidant le peuple will lead Christie’s 19th Century European & Orientalist Art auction.
A vibrant and spontaneous autograph painting by Delacroix, Le 28 juillet — la liberté guidant le peuple is a vital document in the evolution of an image known the world over, offering extraordinary insight into the artist’s process.
Whether depicting battles between Turks and Greeks, Christians and Muslims, the powers of Heaven and Hell, or the heroes of literature and classical antiquity, many of Delacroix’s paintings are unforgiving in their brutality. They reveal an obsession with power, colour and movement and a gladiatorial perspective that dictates only one victor. La liberté guidant le people was not a glorification of the raw and violent power of the mob, however, but an allegory for the political ambitions and struggles of a population determined on liberation.
The work was not created as a single historical painting, but was the consequence of several projects undertaken by Delacroix, rooted in his desire to depict the tragic events of the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s. It was a cause that had captured the popular imagination in France and England, exemplified by the involvement of such figures as Lord Byron, who died in the service of the Greek cause in 1824. In August 1824, Delacroix presented The Massacre of Chios at the Salon. The painting, which now hangs in the Louvre, articulated his shock at the brutal slaughter of tens of thousands of Greek patriots that had taken place on the island of Chios two years previously.
In the following years, Delacroix continued to explore the artistic expression of grand concepts such as Liberty and Rebellion, while also producing large-scale paintings on literary and contemporary subjects to be shown at the biennial salons. These separate ambitions culminated in the allegorical painting Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, the scale, palette and compositional elements of which are of vital importance to the creation of La liberté guidant le peuple.
Detail of Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798-1863), Le 28 juillet – la liberté guidant le peuple, 1830, with the figure of Liberty brandishing what would be the Tricolour in the final work
In October 1830, in a letter addressed to his brother, Delacroix wrote: ‘I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her.’ In the preparatory oil sketch the fast and fluid lines of the final composition takes form with the figure of Liberty at the centre, surrounded by the fallen men who populate the primary plane. A pivotal figure, looking up in hope and admiration, is present to the left in both the preparatory and the final painting.
Detail of: Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798-1863), Le 28 juillet – la liberté guidant le peuple, 1830, showing the artist’s fast and fluid lines
Many sketches and preparatory works are often unsigned, and this is no exception. For part of its existence Le 28 juillet — la liberté guidant le peuple was overlooked and even misattributed to Delacroix’s apprentice, Pierre Andrieu (1821-1892). It took meticulous research by several scholars to establish its rightful place as the definitive prelude to Delacroix’s greatest work.
‘We are extremely excited to present the only known oil sketch of Delacroix’s masterpiece to collectors this December,’ says Arne Everwijn, Head of Sale, 19th Century European & Orientalist Art in London. ‘The fluidity of the sketch and the use of sharp diagonal lines exemplifies the artistic mastery of Delacroix, portraying the dynamism and movement for which the final composition is known.’
Le 28 juillet — la liberté guidant le peuple will be on view at Christie’s Paris from 13 to 18 October before being exhibited during Christie’s London Classic Week from 2 to 13 December.