July 27, 2007

Piracy and Liberty

An excerpt from my ongoings readings on the history of piracy. Marcus Rediker compares the frontispiece of Historie der Engelsche Zee-Rovers to Delacroix's Liberty Leads the People.

Zeerovers[Anne] Bonny and [Mary] Read may have influenced posterity in yet another, more indirect way, through an illustration by an unknown artist that appeared as the frontispiece of the Dutch translation of Captain Charles Johnson's General History of the Pyrates, now called Historie der Engelsche Zee-Roovers. It featured a barebreasted woman militant, armed with a sword and a torch, surging forward beneath the Jolly Roger, the international flag of piracy. In the background at the left hangs a gibbet with ten executed pirates dangling; at the right is a ship in flames. Trampled underfoot are an unidentifiable document, perhaps a map or a legal decree; a capsizing ship with a broken mainmast; a woman still clutching the scales of justice; and a man, possibly a soldier, who appears to have his hands bound behind his back. Hovering at the right is a mythical figure, perhaps Aeolus, Greek god of the winds, who adds his part to the tempestuous scene. Bringing up the rear of the chaos is a small sea monster, a figure commonly drawn by early modern mapmakers to adorn the aquatic parts of the globe.
The illustration is an allegory of piracy, the central image of which is female, armed, violent, riotous, criminal, and destructive of property - in short, the very picture of anarchy.
The characteristics of the allegory of piracy were equally characteristic of the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who, not surprisingly, were featured prominently in the Historie der Engelsche Zee-Rovers, not only in its pages but in separate illustrations and even on the cover page, directly opposite the frontispiece, where the book proudly advertised its account of their lives. It seems almost certain that these two real-life pirates, who lived, as their narrative claimed, by 'Fire or Sword,' inspired the illustrator to depict insurgent piracy in the allegorical form of a militant, marauding woman holding fire in one hand and a sword in the other.
LibertyIt is instructive to compare the work to a famous painting, Eugene Delacroix's Liberte guidant le peuple (Liberty leading the people), for the similarities are striking. Compositionally the works are remarkably similar: a central female figure, armed, bare-breasted, and dressed in a Roman tunic, looks back as she propels herself forward, upward, over, and above a mass of bodies strewn below. The proletarian identity of each woman is indicated by the bulk, muscle, and obvious strength of her physique; Parisian critics in 1831 were scandalized by the 'dirty' Liberty, whom they denounced as a whore, a fishwife, a part of the 'rabble.' Moreover, flags and conflagrations help to frame each work: the Jolly Roger and a burning ship at the right give way to the French tricolor and a burning building in almost identical locations. An armed youth, a street urchin, stands in for the windmaker. Where the rotting corpses of pirates once hung now mass 'the people.' Two soldiers, both apparently dead, lie in the forefront.
There are differences: Liberty now has a musket with bayonet rather than a sword and torch. She still leads but now takes her inspiration from the living rather than the dead. 'The people' in arms have replaced 'the people' - as a ship's crew was commonly called in the eighteenth century - who are hanging by the neck in the Dutch illustration.
More important, Delacroix has softened and idealized both the female body and face, replacing anger and anguish with a tranquil, if determined, solemnity. His critics notwithstanding, Delacroix has also turned a partly naked woman into a partly nude woman, exerting over the female body an aesthetic control that parallels the taming of the warrior woman in popular balladry. Liberty thus contains her contradictions: she is both a 'dirty' revolutionary born of action and an otherworldly, idealized female subject combining a classical artistic inheritance and a new nineteenth-century definition of femininity.
It cannot be proven definitively that Delacroix saw the earlier graphic and used it as a model. In 1824 the artist discontinued his journal, where he might have noted such an influence, and did not return to it until 1847. And in any case, both the Dutch and the French artist probably drew on classical depictions of goddesses such as Athena, Artemis, or Nike as they imagined their subjects. Regardless, there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the allegory of piracy may have influenced Delacroix's greatest work.
First, it is well known that Delacroix drew on the experiences of real people in his rendition of Liberty Leading the People, including Marie Deschamps, who during the hottest of the July days seized a musket of a recently killed citizen and fired it against the Swiss guards. Another subject familiar to the artist was 'a poor laundry-girl' known only as Anne-Charlotte D., who was said to have killed nine Swiss soldiers in avenging her brother's death. These real women, like Anne Bonny and Mary Read, were bound to appeal to the romantic imagination.
Second, Delacroix himself noted in his journal that he often studied engravings, woodcuts, and popular prints as he conceptualized his paintings and sought to solve compositional problems. By the time Delacroix composed his famous painting, in late 1830, at least twenty editions of A General History of the Pyrates had appeared, six (or more) of these in French and many containing the Dutch illustration. The majority of these editions, which, including the French, advertised the stories of Bonny and Read on their title pages, would have been available to the artist in Paris.
Third, and most important, it can be established that piracy was on Delacroix's mind at the very moment he was painting Liberty. The English romantic poet Lord Byron was, according to the art historian George Heard Hamilton, 'an inexhaustible source of inspiration' for the painter. Delacroix engaged the work of Byron intensely during the 1820s, exhibiting three major paintings on subjects from Byron's poetry in 1827 and executing several others on the Greek civil war, in which Byron ultimately lost his life. More crucially still, Delacroix was reading Byron's poem "The Corsair" - about piracy - as he was painting Liberty. In 1831, at the very same Salon in which he exhibited his greatest painting, Delacroix also entered a watercolor based on Byron's poem.
- Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations, 121-5