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In which John discusses one of his favorite paintings, Eugene Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People.
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Other topics include the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, the rise of Napoleon, and how by the time Eugene Delacroix painted his most famous painting, he had lived his entire life in political and social crisis due to failed revolutions and YET STILL somehow managed to be hopeful about the revolution of July, 1830.

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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. I'm sick, which is perhaps related to the fact that I recently spent a lot of time with strangers in the Louvre looking at this painting called 'Liberty Leading the People' by Eugène Delacroix, which first and foremost is not about the French Revolution. Okay, so we're going to gloss over a lot of complexity to get to why this painting is so great. But you'll recall that in the 18th century there was a French Revolution during which the King Louis XVI and his wife, who never actually said "Let them eat cake" were removed from power. And then a couple years later, France entered the so-called Reign of Terror where over a sixteen thousand people were executed by state. French politician Maximilien Robespierre famously wrote at this time, "The basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror." Although some would argue he was a little stronger on the terror than the virtue, but anyway. Then in 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte became the de facto leader of France, eventually crowning himself emperor, and who would succeed Napoleon? Why, King Louis XV who was literally the previous Louis' brother. So in about 20 years France went from having a king named Louis to having a democratic revolution to having an emperor to having another king named Louis who was the old Louis' brother. That's often the thing about revolutions. They go all the way around. Okay, so we've got this new Louis but then in 1824 he dies of both wet and dry gangrene, which is a nice reminder that I would not like to live in the 19th century, even if I could be a king. And so his other brother, Charles X becomes king. He tried to rule over France in partnership with this parliament called The Chamber of Deputies but it goes terribly and finally in 1830 King Charles X attempts to dissolve parliament and reinstate all of these bans on press freedom. This leads to the July revolution where Charles X is removed from power and enter into the scene the Citizen King Louis Philippe, who's about to be king but also has to be a citizen and this constitutional monarchy is going to be mostly constitutional. That is the revolution depicted in this painting. By then France had been an unstable country for almost 50 years, right? Veering back and forth between democracy and monarchy and populist tyrannical governments and military dictatorships, there had been endless bloodshed and this is a painting about all of that. About the hope of liberty leading the people, of course. But also about the fear as shown by the fact that liberty is walking among corpses. It's about the cost of revolution as well as the promise of it. I mean, there is glory here but there is also lots of death. While making this painting, Delacroix wrote, "If I haven't fought for my country, I'll at least paint for her." And it does feel to me like a painting for the French people in this historical moment. A painting that celebrated the audacious hope of revolution while also acknowledging the risk of failure in revolution. Another thing I really love about the painting is the way it gets kinds of unfinished looking in the background, like these distant stories and distant people are as yet unfixed. Which makes me think about how we can't know what history means as we live through it. Delacroix couldn't know that the July revolution wouldn't be the end of French revolutions or French monarchs. The painting was bought the year after it was finished by the French government with the initial idea being to hang it somewhere near King Louis Philippe to remind that constitutional monarchies should remain constitutional. But Louis Philippe's allies deemed it too radical so it was hidden in an attic until it was displayed again in 1848 as a new revolution came to France. The painting didn't enter the collection of the Louvre until 1974, just after the death of France's last monarch, Napoleon III. To look at the painting now, it seems like a celebration of the inevitable victory of liberty and democracy, but it wasn't. Not when it was painted and not for decades afterward because there was nothing inevitable about the victory of liberty and democracy. There still isn't. To me, the painting is a reminder that revolutions are never easy or simple. Even when liberty is leading the people. Hank, I'll see on Friday.