The Second French Revolution


Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

Another post from the History Book Club.

The French Revolution of 1830, by David Pinkney

Karl Marx’s essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon opens with the memorable remark that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Ironically, this essay dealt with the third French revolution, in 1848. One would have thought that the revolution of 1830 had furnished ample farce to last out the century.

In an unpublished novel, Marx had earlier expressed a similar sentiment in reference to the 1830 revolution: “Every giant presupposes a dwarf, every genius a philistine … Caesar leaves behind him Octavian, Emperor Napoleon the bourgeois king Louis Philippe.”

1814 saw the defeat of Napoleon and the installation of the Boubon monarch Louie 18th, brother of the executed Louie 16th. Ten years later, on his death, his brother Charles 10th ascended to the throne.

Tallyrand summed up these two Bourbon kings with the celebrated phrase, “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” The Congress of Vienna had restored the Bourbons, but forced them to accept a Constitutional monarchy, with la Charte and an elected Chamber of Deputies and an inherited Chamber of Peers. So, roughly, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. But sufferage was absurdly low: only 1%–2% of the populace possessed the right to vote.

The excesses of the 1st revolution and the Napoleonic debacle left a conservative mood in its wake, and ultraroyalists originally dominated the Chamber of Deputies. Victor Hugo began his career as a staunch supporter of the king. Over the next decade, the conservatives and the clergy consolidated their power, trying and often succeeding in rolling back the clock.

This period saw an effusion of new journals of every political stripe. A focussed and persistent political effort from the liberals resulted in steadily increasing representation in the Chamber of Deputies. Support for the royalists eroded rapidly after the Charles 10th succeeded Louie 18th in 1824. Charles believed fervently in the absolute divine right of kings. The Anti-Sacrilege Act of 1825 proscribed death for profaning the eucharist. Other actions narrowed Charles’s support to the extreme right. The last straw was his July Ordinances, amounting to a royal coup d’état: these suspended liberty of the press, dissolved the newly elected Chamber of Deputies, took away the franchise from the commercial middle class, stripped away the Chamber’s right of amendment, and generally restored the status quo of the Ancien Régime.

After this, a familiar tale: barricades, rioting, “Three Glorious Days”, the tricolor, … Finally Charles abdicates in favor of his son, who abdicates twenty minutes later in favor of Charles’s grandson. The Chamber of Deputies declares the throne vacant, and within ten days elevates the Duke of Orléans to the throne.

David Pinkney supplements this cinematic story with two more perspectives, the economic and the sociological. A recession, deepening into a depression, wracked the French economy in 1826–1832. Wages declined. The price of food, especially bread, shot up. Simply put, many people could no longer afford to eat. Les Misérables.

From a sociological standpoint, the period 1800–1830 “brought a formidable growth in the population of Paris, after centuries of slow growth”. Homicide, suicide, disease, rootlessness—again, Les Misérables.

I’d like to turn now to the most famous painting of the revolution of 1830, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. Delacroix wrote to his brother, “If I haven’t fought for my country at least I will paint for her.” First exhibited at the official Salon of 1831, the painting was an instant hit. The new French government purchased it, intending to display it in the throne room as a reminder to the new king, but this did not happen. In 1832 it was “hidden in the attic”, as one art historian puts it. It did not see public view again until after the revolution of 1848, finally finding its permanent home in the Louvre in 1874.

The painting is at once realistic and symbolic. The topography corresponds to no actual location: the view of Notre Dame depicted was completely impossible at the time. But the figures! Alexandre Dumas wrote, “These are real paving stones, real boys, real men of the people, real blood … that Liberty is not at all the classic Liberty; it is a young woman of the people, one of those who fight not to be tutoyée, outraged and violated by the great lords.”

From left to right, we see a factory worker with a sabre; a foreman with a top-hat and rifle; a country worker kneeling at Liberty’s feet; and a street urchin with two pistols, who twenty years later would find a literary equivalent in Victor Hugo’s Gavroche. In the background the sharp-eyed will observe a student of the École Polytechnique wearing a Napoleonic two-cornered hat, and a tricolor flying from Notre Dame, echoing the one Liberty waves. Liberty herself wears a Phrygean or liberty hat, aka bonnet rouge, a symbol of the revolution of 1789; these were supposedly knit by women sitting by the guillotine during executions.

Delacroix drew on a mythological tradition of female embodiments of abstractions: Venus for love, Athena for wisdom, Diana for the hunt. But Delacroix’s Liberty is no Greek goddess. She wears a simple peasant dress, and bares both breasts, unlike the traditional classical statue which bares one. Critics of the painting called her a fishwife or a whore. Partisans called her liberty incarnate. Ultimately she morphed into Marianne, the symbol of France itself, appearing on the 100-franc note in 1979 and a postage stamp in 1982.

Delacroix’s political sympathies were always more Bonapartist than Republican: his father held high positions under Napoleon, and his brother was a general in Napoleon’s army. Some historians have speculated that Delacroix’s biological father was Tallyrand. After the revolution of 1848, Delacroix’s views shifted to the right. No matter. Delacroix’s himself described the task of painting in these words: “ … to touch the soul and the senses, to ennoble the intelligence and illuminate it.” Liberty Leading the People accomplishes that.


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