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. This should not be taken as an indication of the artist’s insensitivity to his surroundings, and certainly not as a brazen and sadistic fascination with the suffering of others, but as an expression of the artist’s engagement with his contemporary world. It satisfied a deep need in the artist to address that which stirred him through a specifically romantic, almost spontaneous interpretation. Baudelaire wrote: “Delacroix was passionately in love with passion, and coldly determined to seek the means of expressing passion in the most visible manner. In this dual character, be it said in passing, we find the two distinguishing marks of the most substantial geniuses, extreme geniuses.” (Charles Baudelaire, Selected writings on Art and Artists, translated by P.E. Charvet, Cambridge, 1972, p. 363.).
Eugène Delacroix was moderately enthusiastic about the French revolution, but fearful of the fury of the masses, which went against his upper-class sensibilities. His seminal painting La liberté Guidant le peuple (fig. 1) should not be seen as a glorification of the uncompromising raw and violent power of the mob, but more as an allegory of the struggle and political ambitions that led to the liberation of a people. La liberté Guidant le peuple was not created as a single historical painting, but was the consequence of several projects undertaken by Delacroix, starting with the desire to depict the tragic events which occurred in Greece during the 1820s.
Although he had not visited Greece, Delacroix found a rich vein of inspiration in the Greek War of Independence; a cause which had captured the popular imagination in France and England through both the fascinating exoticism of Greek culture and the involvement of such flamboyant figures as Lord Byron, who died in the service of the Greek cause in 1824. This, blended with shock at the brutal treatment of Greek patriots and civilians such as the 1822 massacre at Chios inspired Delacroix and resulted in his evocative painting now in the collection of the Louvre (fig. 2).
In the following years, the artist was still exploring the artistic expression of grand concepts such as Liberty and Rebellion, as is evident in several studies he executed between 1822 and 1830 (fig. 3-4). During these years, Delacroix also sought to establish and then consolidate his career by producing large-scale paintings on literary and contemporary subjects to be shown at the biennial salons. These separate ambitions culminated in the allegorical painting of Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, fig. 5).
Timothy Wilson-Smith writes: “In Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, Delacroix had painted “Greece” as an allegorical figure which is a free version of the Greek idea of “Tyche” –Fate or Destiny– whose melancholy mood she represents. In Liberty leading the People, he painted “Liberty” as an allegorical figure which is also derived, loosely, from another ancient Greek idea. Either she is based on a winged Victory, similar to the famous and as yet undiscovered “Aphrodite of Melos”. A “Victory” has obvious relevance to the theme and the “Aphrodite” had just been put into the Louvre. It is the spirit of victory and love which animates the painting. It is Liberty also which brings colour to life. At the bottom of the picture, Delacroix uses the earthy, dark colours reminiscent of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (fig.6), but round the head of Liberty glow bright white, the colour of light, and red and blue, two of the primary colours." (T. Wilson-Smith, Delacroix: a life, London, 1992, p. 92.)
The scale and palette of Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, and most of all compositional elements such as the central figure discussed above, are of vital importance to the creation of La liberté Guidant le peuple. “The general basis for the two is similar: a huge figure both real and symbolic, standing on bloodstained fragments of ruin mingled with dead bodies, conforms to the firm rhythm of a pyramidal architecture. Even the type of woman is the same –the dark haired, straight-nosed woman with the great dark eyes, full-curved lips and a face solidly drawn and modelled like some head from Antiquity.” (R. Huyghe, Delacroix, London, 1963, p. 198.)
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.” Although Delacroix refers to it as a modern subject, and it depicts contemporary events – the artist completed the painting in the same year that the events took place—one could argue that it is also a history painting. The scene represents a pivotal moment in French history when King Louis Philippe replaced the abdicated King Charles X. However, its true modernity lies in its composition and its purely romantic aesthetic.
The artist made numerous drawings exploring both elements of the composition as a whole. However, the present lot is the only known sketch in oil and which fully outlines the intended final composition. The figure of Liberty takes the central role with the flag on the right (in the final version it flies to the left). In fast and fluid lines, the composition takes form. The concept of the group of fallen men that serves to populate the primary plane is clearly visible, as is the smoke clearing above the rabble. A pivotal figure, looking up in hope and admiration, is present to the left in both the preparatory and the final painting. The sharp diagonal lines give a strong sense of dynamism and movement, both retained in the final composition.
Many sketches and preparatory works, they are often unsigned and lost as autograph in history and the present lot is no exception, as it was for part of its existence overlooked and even misattributed to Delacroix’s apprentice, Pierre Andrieu (1821-1892). It was through meticulous research and the competency of several scholars on Delacroix that it regained its rightful place within Delacroix’s oeuvre as the definitive prelude to his masterpiece La liberté Guidant le peuple.
The first to address misgivings about the wrongful attribution was Hélène Toussaint. She wrote that this study must be reattributed to Delacroix despite the historical assumptions that were made on the basis of the Andrieu estate stamp. According to Toussaint, this study cannot be a copy of the Louvre’s painting. Apart from the obvious question of why Delacroix would have asked his pupil Andrieu to make a copy of a work he painted when Andrieu was only nine years old, she also remarks that Andrieu was incapable of such technique. (H. Toussaint, La liberté Guidant le peuple de Delacroix, Paris, 1982, p. 25, no. 21.).
The most important and definitive opinion was published in 1989 by the leading authority on Eugène Delacroix, Lee Johnson, in his final supplement to his critical catalogue on the artist’s oeuvre. Laying to rest any doubts, he writes:
“The oil sketch heading the list of ‘copies’ (p. 145, Pl. 72 in Vol. VI) was identified by me and, independently, by a French Scholar who had made a special study of Delacroix’s pupils with lot 141 in Andrieu’s posthumous sale of 6 May 1892, a lot described in the sale catalogue as a copy of the Liberty guiding the people by Andrieu after Delacroix (cf. L. Johnson, “Pierre Andrieu, un “polisson”?”, Revue de l’art, no. 21, 1973, p.68 and nos. 19-21, repr. Fig 6). Hélene Toussaint has since argued in favour of restoring this sketch to Delacroix (La Liberté Guidant le peuple de Delacroix: Les Dossiers du département des peintures [du Louvre], 26 (Paris, 1982), pp. 25 f., repr.). She points out that although the picture bears the stamp of the Andrieu sale, it cannot properly be called a copy nor can it be identified with any other entry in the sale catalogue: it may therefore have been stamped and retained in Andrieu’s estate without being put under the hammer. She argues further that Andrieu was incapable of such spontaneity and vitality of execution, which is in any case inconsistent with the sketch’s being a copy: that the composition is closely related to a drawing by Delacroix –a resemblance I had already indicated; and that the proportions of the canvas are the same as those of the salon painting.
Taken as a whole, these are in themselves persuasive arguments for restoring the sketch to Delacroix and they can be reinforced by other considerations not mentioned by Toussaint. This author demonstrates that the Liberty leading the People developed out of a project celebrating Greece and believes this sketch to be still connected with the Greek rather than the French theme.
In support of this opinion it may be pointed out that a single female figure with upraised right arm was first sketched with the canvas turned to make a vertical instead of the present horizontal composition (the outlines, brushed over with white, can be clearly seen in reproduction half way up the canvas to the right of the central figure). Thus, perhaps to celebrate Greece triumphant, Delacroix first considered placing her in an upright composition, as in Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (J98; Vol. II; Pl. 84), where she is in despair. It would be hard to explain the superimposition of one design on another if this were indeed a copy or pastiche by Andrieu.
In addition, I have recently seen a quite accurate copy of the Liberty, which, though not bearing the stamp of his sale, is painted in a style very characteristic of Andrieu and seems more likely to have been lot 141 in the sale. It is slightly more than half the size of this sketch.
A further point is that a sketch of the Liberty was listed in Inv. Delacroix as by the master, but was apparently not included in his posthumous sale. It now seems to me likely that our sketch is that picture, which may have been handed over to Andrieu instead of being included in the public auction at the risk of its being worked up later into a more finished composition.
Finally, in style, technique, and the method of turning the canvas to draw two different compositions with the brush, this work finds a close parallel in the canvas with sketches of Leon Riesener and a Hamlet and Horatio (J224; Vol. IV; Pl. 45). I believe, therefore, that it should be restored to Delacroix.” (L. Johnson, The painting of Eugène Delacroix, A Critical Catalogue, Oxford, 1989, Vol VI. pp. 195-196, no. 143a, Pl.72).
The present lot tells the story of the birth of a masterpiece. It illustrates the artistry and vision of a man determined to commit an idea to canvas, for all the world to absorb. It provides true insight into the artist's process and is a pivotal document in the evolution of an image known the world around, which has, and will continue to, inspire concepts such as Liberty and Revolution both in art and life. The reappearance of this prelude to one of the most iconic images in world art history to the market after more than six decades is a momentous event.
Fig. 1. - Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Liberty guiding the People, 1830, Oil on canvas, ©Louvre-Lens, France / Bridgeman Images. 55174398_Comp1
Fig. 2. - Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Scenes from the Massacre of Chios, 1824, Oil on canvas, ©Louvre, Paris, France / Bridgeman Images. 55174398_Comp5
Fig. 3. - Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Female nude, study for Liberty guiding the People, Pencil on Paper, ©Louvre, Paris, France / Bridgeman Images. 55174398_Comp2
Fig. 4. - Eugène Delacroix, Feuille d'étude pour la Grèce à Missolonghi et La Liberté guidant le peuple, Paris, musée national Eugène Delacroix ©RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)/ Adrien Didierjean. 55174398_Comp3
Fig. 5 - Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, 1826, Oil on canvas, ©Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, France / Bridgeman Images. 55174398_Comp4
Fig. 6 - Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, Oil on canvas, ©Louvre, Paris, France / Bridgeman Images. 55174398_Comp6
Few artists have had the same impact and lasting 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. The complex and engaged artist whom Baudelaire called ‘a poet in painting’ was driven by personal vision and was one of the very few artists who wrote eloquently on art, literature, music, nature, society and humankind.
As a painter, he profoundly transformed French painting by reinventing the traditional rules of representation. Interested in capturing the unique interplay between light and form, he was fascinated with optical effects and bold colours which he used in his representations of both classical and unconventional subjects. These innovations, as well as his use of expressive brushstrokes, inspired the spontaneity of the Impressionists and paved a way for new styles of painting.
At his death, Delacroix became a kind of a spiritual master for a new generation of French painters, a small set of admirers, immortalized around the figure of Delacroix in the painting by Fantin-Latour in 1864 (fig. 1).
This tutelary image was to have a lasting impact on other artists such as Cézanne, Degas, and Van Gogh, all three of whom copied Delacroix’s compositions and revered him as a pioneer. Post-impressionists, Symbolists and Fauves, all of these admirers also copied Delacroix and continually turned to him to innovate and experiment new forms of art.
Delacroix’s glorification of colour continued to inspire artists from the studios of Gustave Moreau such as Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault and some leading figures of the Fauvism movement such as André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. During the second half of the twentieth century, Delacroix continued to have a significant impact on the emergence of new expressions of painting. His creative and intellectual force drove Modern painting and during the 1950’s, Giorgio de Chirico decided to copy the masterpieces of Delacroix and Picasso when he undertook the famous graphic and pictorial series of Women of Algiers (fig. 3) directly inspired by Delacroix’s painting.
Since his death in 1863, Eugene Delacroix has been revered as a pioneering master in the history of painting. His allegorical representation of Liberty is forever associated to the romantic idea of revolutionary fervour to which the French State paid a tribute by featuring Liberty alongside a portrait of the artist and a view of his studio on the 100 Franc banknote, which was withdrawn from circulation in March 1998 (fig. 4). Furthermore, the figure from Delacroix’s painting inspired Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty in New York.
At present, Delacroix’s universal painting still inspires leading contemporary artists such as Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi (fig. 5 and fig. 6), two painters who wish to transmit through their work a contemporary vision of Delacroix’s masterpiece.
Fig.1: Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Homage to Delacroix, 1864, Oil on canvas, ©Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France / Bridgeman Images. 55174398_Comp9
Fig.2: Paul Cézanne (1839-1906): The apotheosis of Delacroix, 1890-94, Oil on canvas, ©Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence, France / Bridgeman Images. 55174398_Comp11
Fig 3: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Women of Algiers, 1955, Oil on canvas), ©Collection of Mr and Mrs Victor W. Ganz, New York, USA / Bridgeman Images. Waiting for copyright clearance. 55174398_Comp12
Fig 5: Yue Minjun (1962-), Freedom Leading the People, 1995-1996, Oil on canvas, M + Sigg Collection, © YUEMINJUN Studio. All Rights Reserved. Waiting for copyright clearance
Fig 6: Zeng Fanzhi (1965-), From 1830 till Now No. 4, 2014, Private Collection, © 2017 Zeng Fanzhi Studio. Waiting for copyright clearance