chiaroscuro

‘Liberty Leading the People’

Anyone who reads my blog or who knows me at all will know how much I love France. I’ve spent many, many happy holidays there and plan to move there permanently. I don’t want to sound overly emotional but I am being completely genuine when I say that the French people I have met have been, without exception, welcoming, friendly and warm. They really do have a fabulous attitude to life and to living that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

My WIP is partially based in Paris and the great French artist Eugene Delacroix features. I have spent a great deal of time researching Paris, reading about its history, its culture, its people. And I have been planning a trip – it is a city I have always wanted to visit, but have only passed through (usually accidently when the satnav goes wonky).

Delacroix painted ‘Liberty Leading the People’ in 1830. It has often been seen as a painting commemorating the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century. However, the scene he painted actually relates to what took place on July 28th, 1830.

the-liberty-leading-the-people-1830

After the revolution and the subsequent rise of Napoleon and the Napoleonic wars, the Bourbons were restored to the throne,with the brother of the executed King Louis XVI becoming king. Charles X became king in 1824 and he immediately set about undoing the work of the revolution. In July 1830, among other measures, he abolished freedom of the press. This lead to a virtually bloodless revolution; resistance to the king spread quickly and civil war broke out, people refused to work, and crowds gathered shouting ‘Down with the king’. The king tried to solve things by abdicating and making his grandson king. The Chamber of Deputies refused to accept this and the king went into exile.

Delacroix’s painting symbolises this moment – when anything seemed possible.

It has been used as an image for that first revolution – but that, to me, doesn’t matter. What matters to me is the values it represents. The will of the people.  Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity). Liberty, of course, is the symbol of the French Republic, also known as Marianne.

I don’t feel qualified to comment on the events of last Friday, nor do I feel it is my place to do so. But this painting by Mathilde Adorno, using Delacroix’s famous image, says it all for me. Marianne is as apt a symbol today as she was when Delacroix painted her in 1830.

paris

Eugene Delacroix and the lost art of letter writing

Eugene Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix

Researching my new WIP, I’ve been reading the selected letters of Eugène Delacroix.

Delacroix was a rather controversial 19th Century artist. His painting invoked strong reactions for their use of bold colour and for his refusal to conform to the ideas of the day. I think that’s why I like him so much. He’s pretty hard to research however, despite the fact that he is regarded as the father of the French Romantic movement.

These letters then are indispensable and a godsend. They are also entertaining, intelligent, beautifully written (and translated) and hugely insightful. Without them, I would be at rather a loss to put any flesh on the bones of the man whose paintings I so admire.

The letters that are relevant to the period I am researching, when Delacroix was a young man, are written to friends and family. They contain within them clues to Delacroix’s passions, his values, his admiration for his close friends and hints of the rather strained relationship he had with his sister. But what if Delacroix was alive today? How would I find out what makes him tick?

Well, you could argue that it would be a lot easier. That I would just have to look at his Twitter account or Google him to find out the latest gossip, or read interviews in magazines or on websites. But would that give me a true picture? I somehow doubt it. Here, in these personal letters, we have something precious – a real insight into a man that many consider a genius. For today’s artists, musicians, actors and celebrities, what we usually get is a PR approved, carefully constructed, watered-down version of a personality, a life that the artist (or their management company) wants you to see. Yes, we might get to read an autobiography (but this would be run through the usual PR checks), we might read on Twitter what they had for breakfast, but is that a real insight?

And it’s not just in the area of celebrity that something has been lost. The art of writing letters is lost to us on the whole. We write quick emails, tweet or text each other. We don’t sit down and write to each other about our feelings, our ambitions, our desires and our disappointments as Delacroix did. Even our moments of the greatest grief or the greatest joy are now more often posted on Facebook. I’ve seen people ‘share’ the loss of a parent in a post and the response has been a range of sad emoticons. That takes a few seconds. Compare that to Delacroix’s letter to his great friend J.B. Pierret, written after the death of Perret’s father. The letter is awash with empathy, with sympathy, with real feeling, real concern and real emotion. How much more comfort would that give than a ‘sad face’?

I’m not one of those people who think that everything was better in the past – far from it. But I do think in this age where everything is quick, everything is automated, our responses have become automated too. And I do think we’re the poorer for that.