“I may not have fought for my country but at least I shall have painted for her.” So said Eugène Delacroix of his most famous painting, Liberty Leading the People (1830).

It’s a ringing statement, much quoted. From the leader of French Romanticism, it gives us the skeleton key to the Romantic myth of the artist: the artist whose formal innovations are forged in the fires of the age, whose creative convictions drive the world forward.

Except Delacroix’s example also shows how that is a bit of a mystification.

The great painter was a revolutionary in art but a moderate in politics. Born in 1798, his father had been a high-ranking Napoleonic official. Delacroix’s politics, to the extent that he had them, were Bonapartist, not republican. He believed in a benevolent dictator; he distrusted the mob. “Hating crowds, he looked upon them as little more than statue-breakers,” wrote Baudelaire, probably his greatest champion. Read more