Liberty: it conjures up not words but an image of a woman in profile, her eyes focused, her expression grave.
Delacroix painted Liberty as a dark-haired warrior with bare feet, uncovered breasts, arched brows, a bayonet in one hand and holding aloft a revolutionary flag in her muscled arm. But her face is turned away, the sky behind her is piled with storm clouds; she is looking back at her exhausted comrades and beneath her feet are piled corpses.
If the painting, La Liberté guidant le peuple, teaches us anything it is that liberty – as both concept and personification – is complex, slippery and hard to attain. Before it is reached, blood will be shed, battles will be braved, storm clouds must gather.
She wears a distinctive conical hat on top of her beautiful head: the Phrygian cap, associated since Roman times with emancipation and freedom. French revolutionaries adopted the cap and turned it into their bonnet rouge; nineteenth-century English radicals often wore them to demonstrate support for revolutionary causes. To wear one in France was, for a long time, a punishable offence.
Perhaps paintings and images are easier to fall back on when reflecting on liberty; words can be harder to take, more difficult to comprehend. I don’t know how to begin to process collocations such as ‘tortured and imprisoned without trial’ or ‘gang-raped by militia’ or ‘died in a detention centre’. Yet these words are there, every day, in news reports, on the internet. They must be read, they must be understood and remembered and retold. But how do I explain such things to my children, when I can barely grasp such horrors myself? How do I break it to them that we live in a world where such atrocities are possible?
Such things must always be acknowledged and fought. Delacroix’s Liberty did not give up. She fought to the end, until she stood with her flag and her cap, exhausted but triumphant. We too must fight the unacceptable and the unjust, in small and large ways, until such time where we may all live without fear, in a state of liberty.
Maggie O'Farrell was born in Northern Ireland. She is the author of six novels and has won the Costa Novel Award. She lives in Edinburgh.