Bastille Day, Liberty Caps, and the 2019 Venice Biennale

Written by Jennifer Chen-su Huang

Bastille Day commemorates the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. The Bastille was a fortress and political prison run by the French royal authority, and while the entire French Revolution was a prolonged period of many tumultuous changes of leadership, Bastille Day is regarded as the initial event that pushed France towards freedom and equality. 

The work of art most frequently associated with the French Revolution is Eugene Delacroix’s most influential work, Liberty Leading the People. The painting commemorates the July Revolution of 1830, which overthrew King Charles X of France. Featured most notably in the center of the painting is a contemporary allegorical depiction of the Goddess of Liberty, whom the French would rename Marianne for their Republic. Delacroix paints the goddess leading fighters of all social classes, signifying the unification of the French people against autocracy. To her left is a man of the bourgeois represented in a top hat, and to her right is a boy in tattered garments. The bodies of the slain lie beneath them. This symbolic female figure is modelled after the Roman goddess Libertas. In ancient Roman iconography, she is often shown wearing the Liberty (or Phrygian) cap, which Delacroix also highlights here. While once an international symbol of liberty, this cap has become largely associated with the French on Bastille Day.

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830). Courtesy of the Louvre.

Yvonne Korshak, Professor Emeritus at Adelphi University, writes about the liberty cap as a revolutionary symbol in both America and France during the 18th and 19th centuries. The origin of the liberty cap stems from ancient Rome, when the cap served as a symbol of freedom; it was worn by freed slaves, and regarded as “the headgear of the working citizen… [.] As a symbol of freedom, the cap was also a reminder of erstwhile slavery” (53). It was commonly used in the iconography of the American Revolution. Korshak attributes Paul Revere as the first to feature Libertas on the obelisk he designed for the 1766 Boston Common celebration of the repeal of the Stamp Act. The revolutionary liberty cap reappears in many more designs, including prints and bowls, and even “in a Beauvais tapestry commissioned by Louis XVI in 1783 as a gift to George Washington, [where] the American flagpole is topped by the liberty cap” (58). This floppy cap, which began as a symbol of protest against British taxes and trade rules, emerged as an icon of American independence. 

However, most Americans today would not recognize the red liberty cap as immediately as once before. This is perhaps due to a fear that stemmed from its conflation with the desired liberty of the slaves of the American South during the mid-19th century. Although abolitionists continued to feature the liberty cap in many works of art, the cap as a national symbol soon fell out of favor. Korshak accounts the rejection of commissioned compositions featuring the cap by anti-abolitionist and Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, in 1854 (64), who said, “American liberty is original and not the liberty of the freed slave.” Nevertheless, as demonstrated by its presence on the official Seal of the United States Senate, the liberty cap still retains its powerful revolutionary connotations. 

But the iconography of the liberty or Phrygian cap really took off with the French. During the time of the French Revolution, many French artists and citizens were already familiar with the cap from the American Revolution and continued to utilize the imagery of the Goddess of Liberty donning her red cap. While it is unclear how she became named Marianne, she represented the people with her common name and was an important foil to the royal male monarchy. Furthermore, “the Phrygian liberty cap was particularly meaningful in France because of its resemblance to the cap worn by French workingmen” (65). The cap signified the emergence of a new governing system that valued and included all social classes. Hence, its prominent depiction in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and other significant works of national art.

While the Phrygian cap has become a national symbol and a part of contemporary French culture (being featured in ads for Parisian nightclubs and the like), its prominence in American revolutionary iconography is often forgotten. Only more recently has the liberty cap been revisited by American artist Martin Puryear. Selected to exhibit at the American Pavilion this year at the Venice Biennale, Puryear displays the sculpture, Big Phrygian (2014)

Martin Puryear, Big Phrygian (2019-2014) at the 2019 Venice Biennale. Image courtesy Ben Davis.

Inspired by a print circulating around Paris during the French Revolution that featured a black man wearing a red Phrygian cap with the caption “Moi Libre Aussi,” (I am free too), Puryear created several works influenced by the shape of this specific symbol of liberty. 

As we celebrate Bastille Day this year, let us remember the liberty cap that also played a significant role in American history.

“Moi Libre Aussi” by Louis-Simon Boizot and J. Louis Darcis, Paris, around 1790
Courtesy of John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

References:

Korshak, Yvonne. “The Liberty Cap as a Revolutionary Symbol in America and France.” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 1, no. 2 (1987): 53-69. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3108944.

Puryear, Martin. “Phrygian.” The Art Institute of Chicago (2012). https://www.artic.edu/artworks/217154/phrygian

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