Restored Delacroix Masterpiece Goes Back on Show at Louvre

Specialists removed eight layers of varnish from Liberty Leading the People during the painting's six-month restoration.

May 2, 2024By Emily Snow, MA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial Studies



After a six-month process of removing varnish and restoring lost details, Liberty Leading the People (La Liberté guidant le peuple) by Eugène Delacroix was rehung at the Louvre Museum. As of May 2, the 1830 painting is back on display in the museum’s Salle Mollien, the red-walled gallery of French Romanticism’s monumental showstoppers. Delacroix’s dramatic version of France’s July Revolution is one of the most recognizable paintings in art history. Its central figure, a bare-breasted woman personifying Liberty, wields the tricolor national flag and boldly ushers her army over a barricade and the bodies of the fallen.


Specialists Removed Decades of Yellowed Varnish

Liberty Leading the People is reinstalled at the Louvre Museum on April 30, photographed by Sarah Meyssonnier. Source: Reuters.


In the decades since Eugène Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People, the painting’s vibrant palette naturally faded. Restorers over the years applied varnish in various attempts to preserve the French Romantic masterpiece’s evocative coloration. However, the varnish actually had a yellowing effect on the canvas. Sébastien Allard, director of paintings at the Louvre Museum, explained, “The whites, the shadows—all of this ended up melting together under these yellowish layers.” Allard also noted that “grime and dust” had been trapped within the eight layers of oxidized varnish.


After its first restoration since 1949, Liberty Leading the People is now varnish-free. Because of the painting’s monumental size, the restoration work was completed on-site at the Louvre Museum. Specialists began by thoroughly analyzing the painting with x-ray, ultraviolet, and infrared radiation technologies. They also compared their findings with archival research and images. Then, before embarking on the painstaking process of removing varnish, the restoration team carried out various tests on tiny portions of the canvas.


Hidden Delacroix Details Were Revealed

Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, 1830, after restoration. Source: Louvre Museum.


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“We’re the first generation to rediscover the color [of Liberty Leading the People],” said Allard. Once obscured by the yellowed varnish, a vivid blue sky was revealed in the background of the painting. Bright white smoke and glittering dust amidst the action of the scene also came into view after the restoration was complete. Laurence Mugniot, one of the restorers, discovered that “Delacroix hid tiny dabs of blue, white and red all over in a subtle sprinkling to echo the flag.”


Additionally, the central figure of Liberty was formerly assumed to be dressed in solid yellow drapery. However, a previous conservation of the painting likely recolored the drapery, which was originally light grey with yellow accents. The restoration team also identified other elements that were added to the painting after it left Eugène Delacroix’s studio, including a brown mark on Liberty’s drapery that could be removed.


Why Liberty Leading the People Remains Relevant

The Louvre Museum in Paris, France. Source: Wikipedia.


Eugène Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People in 1830 to commemorate France’s July Revolution of the same year, which ousted Charles X, the Bourbon king whose family was reinstated after the fall of the Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire. The French state bought the painting in 1831 during its first public exhibition, and it has been displayed at the Louvre Museum since 1874. After the end of World War II, the image appeared on French stamps and banknotes. Today, Liberty Leading the People is an iconic symbol of French national identity, as well as one of the most popular artworks at the Louvre. The unveiling of its restoration aptly coincides with the Paris Summer Olympics, which begin in July.

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By Emily SnowMA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial StudiesEmily Snow is a contributing writer and art historian based in Amsterdam. She earned an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art and loves knitting, her calico cat, and everything Victorian.