‘Liberty Leading the People’ Returns to the Louvre After a Breathtaking Restoration

Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 oil painting had been covered in grime and discolored by eight layers of varnish

Workers taking protective sheet off a painting in an art gallery
Louvre employees rehung Eugene Delacroix's 1830 oil painting Liberty Leading the People on Thursday after a six-month restoration. Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP via Getty Images

During the summer of 1830, the French king Charles X introduced a series of restrictive rules that angered French citizens. He suspended the freedom of the press, limited the right to vote and eliminated the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the French Parliament.

Demonstrators took to the streets. After three days of fighting, Charles abdicated the throne and fled to England. This moment in French history—more than three decades after the French Revolution—is known as the July Revolution, or Trois Glorieuses (“Three Glorious Days”).

Later that year, French artist Eugène Delacroix captured the spirit of the July Revolution in a work called Liberty Leading the People. His oil painting depicts a half-nude woman carrying a French flag in one hand and a musket with a bayonet in the other. She charges forward, surrounded by a group of demonstrators carrying weapons. The bodies of fallen fighters lie on the ground in front of her.

The woman, Marianne, is the personification of France—and an enduring symbol of freedom and democracy.

But time has taken its toll on the painting. Over the past two centuries, the work has become covered in dust and grime and discolored by eight layers of varnish meant to help brighten it up.

Now, after six months of careful restoration work, the painting has “regained the brilliance, freshness and marvelous harmony of color so specific to Delacroix,” says Laurence des Cars, president and director of the Louvre, in a translated statement. It was re-hung at the Paris museum on Thursday, a few months before crowds descend upon the French capital for the Olympics in July.

The French government bought the piece in 1831, and it’s been part of the Louvre’s collection since 1874. The painting is one of the most popular masterpieces on display at the Louvre, along with the Mona Lisa, according to the museum.

In September 2023, curators carefully took the piece down and replaced it with another painting, Les Femmes Souliotes by Ary Scheffer.

Because the painting is so large—measuring 2.6 by 3.25 meters (or roughly 8.5 by 10.5 feet)—conservators Bénédicte Trémolières and Laurence Mugniot kept it at the museum for cleaning and restoration. Before they began, they took X-rays of the piece and analyzed it using ultraviolet and infrared radiation. They also looked closely at archival photos to see what the painting used to look like.

Their careful study revealed some surprising details, like a brown mark on the woman’s dress that was not made by the artist. They also realized that Marianne’s dress was light gray with hints of gold, not yellow as previously assumed. Conservators suspect that whoever restored the painting in 1949 deliberately changed the color of the dress, per Artnet’s Holly Black.

“The whites, the shadows—all of this ended up melting together under these yellowish layers,” says Sébastien Allard, director of paintings at the Louvre, to Agence France-Presse, as reported by the Guardian’s Philip Oltermann. “We’re the first generation to rediscover the color.”

Conservators also learned that a boy holding a pistol in each hand is standing in front of Marianne, not beside her. Additionally, their work revealed a previously hidden worn boot in the bottom left-hand corner.

“The painting is teeming with details,” says the museum. “Delacroix neglected nothing, right up to the periphery of the painting.”

In addition to sprucing up Liberty Leading the People ahead of the Summer Games, the Louvre has also organized a new exhibition called “Olympism: Modern Invention, Ancient Legacy” that explores the history of the modern Olympics.

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