We are close to the annual celebration of Bastille Day and as I studied the French Revolution in art, I always remember it even through I’m not French nor have I ever lived in France! We often used to go on summer holidays in the south of France and so I guess I have been aware of the importance of the 14 July since I was about six years old. I remember the fireworks every July – a great treat for us kids!
I find it fascinating that one of the best-known paintings in the world is Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”, even if the revolution depicted is that of 1830. For most people it is THE painting that best embodies the revolutionary spirit. It hangs in the Louvre in Paris, in one of my favourite rooms in any museum. Its neighbours are David and Gericault, the walls brimming with French history painting at its best. Delacroix’s Liberty is probably the most popular – scores of people take her photograph, sometimes even posing next to it. The painting has everything you would expect from a revolutionary artwork: passion, movement, death, flag and of course Lady Liberty herself with her breasts exposed like a furious mother to the people. Delacroix and his most famous work even made it on to the 100 Franc banknote!
Paintings of revolutions follow a similar pattern: there is always a flag to rally around, women, children, sometimes dying men. Movement is the key, the idea of chaos, noise and fervour are all perfectly depicted in these examples. Looking through the archive I found plenty of depictions of revolution but most of them were prints, woodcuts, engravings or photographs in the case of the 20th century revolutions. Revolutionary events lend themselves to media that are quickly executed and consumed be they in newspapers, magazines and the internet, flyers and leaflets. Today revolutions take place in social media, such as Twitter where they can reach millions in seconds.
Paintings such as Delacroix’s however, stay in the collective mind and will forever embody the idea of revolution. Here’s to our colleagues in Paris – Happy Bastille Day!