The Story in Paintings: The spirits of nations

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Liberty Leading the People (1830), oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Recent debate about prohibition of ‘burkinis’ and other dress in France has elicited discussion of Marianne, the legendary figure shown in Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People (1830). This drew me to look at paintings which have been said to personify nations.

In most cases, figures personifying a nation have been drawn from, or committed to, sculpture, rather than paintings. A few countries, though, have paintings which are generally taken to represent the ‘spirit of the nation’. Here is a small selection of those which are accessible.


Manoel Lopes Rodrigues (1860–1917), The Republic (1896), oil on canvas, 228 x 118.5 cm, Museu de Arte da Bahia, Salvador, Brazil. Wikimedia Commons.

The Efígie da República symbolises the Republic of Brazil (and sometimes that of Portugal too). She seems to have been borrowed in part from Marianne, only now dressed in red and green. She was adopted in Portugal after the revolution on 5 October 1910, but has fallen into disuse since the late twentieth century.


Edvard Isto (1865–1905), Hyökkäys (The Attack) (1899), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Suomen kansallismuseo, Helsinki. Wikimedia Commons.

Another maiden, this time of more Nordic appearance, represents the Finnish nation. Here she is coming under attack by the double-headed eagle representing the Russian Empire, which is trying to destroy the maiden’s book of law. This painting quickly became an image of protest against the process of russification which was happening around 1900, and as a print played its part in the building of the Finnish nation for independence.


Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Liberty Leading the People (1830), oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Liberty Leading the People (1830), oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Marianne, as the personification of the French nation, is most recognisably expressed in Delacroix’s famous Liberty Leading the People (1830), where she represents the liberty achieved by the July Revolution of 1830.

But she was not intended to be the one and only such image. Within a month of the proclamation of the French Republic on 24 February 1848, a competition was launched to produce the “painted face of the Republic”. Honoré Daumier entered this oil sketch, which came eleventh out of more than 700 entries, but was never worked up into a more finished painting.

Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), The Republic (1848), oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Based on an earlier sketch of his from about 1844 entitled Charity or Caritas, the goddess of clemency, it shows a mother nursing children and holding the French tricolour flag. In this, she sums up the ideal of a strong republic, in her fertility, serenity, and glory, as a development of Delacroix’s Marianne.


Christian Köhler (1809-1861), Waking Germania (1849), oil on canvas, 220 × 280 cm, New York Historical Society, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

The traditional figure, most strongly associated with the revolutions of 1848, was Germania. She was normally shown wearing armour, her breastplate bearing the eagle symbolic of the German empire, and sometimes with the black, red, and gold tricolour of the liberal-nationalists.

Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789–1869), Italia and Germania (Sulamith and Maria) (1828), oil on canvas, 94 × 104 cm, Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Wikimedia Commons.

In his earlier, pre-revolutionary painting, Johann Overbeck makes Germania (left) a close and intimate friend of Italia (right), although most of Germania’s traditional attributes have been suppressed.


Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Greece in the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826), oil on canvas, 208 × 147 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Another of Delacroix’s history paintings provides the best personification of Greece, where she walks on the rubble remaining from the third siege of Missolonghi from 1825-6. This was a desperate attempt by the Greeks to withstand the attacks of the Ottomans. After a year of siege, the Greeks had little option but to try to release their women and children from the city, leaving the men to defend the empty city to the last. Only a thousand made it to safety, the remainder being slaughtered or sold into slavery.

However, the appalling butchery practised by the Turkish forces, who displayed three thousand severed heads on the city walls, brought widespread support for the Greek cause. Britain, France, and Russia intervened, and the Greeks eventually regained their independence. Delacroix’s painting played a significant part in the cause.


Thomas Buchanan Read (1822–1872), The Harp of Erin (1867), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

The Irish mythological figure of Ériu – in modern Irish, Éire – more widely known as Erin, was the matron goddess of Ireland, representing sovereignty, with her sisters Banba and Fódla. Here she is shown with her attribute of the Irish harp, and the colour green. I am not sure why she is chained to this rock, though.


Francesco Hayez (1791–1882), Meditation on the History of Italy (1850-51), oil on canvas, 90 x 70 cm, Galleria d’arte moderna Achille Forti, Verona, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The usual national personification of Italy is Italia Turrita, characterised by her mural crown ‘with towers’ to represent urban history, and holding a bunch of corn ears, as a symbol of fertility and agriculture. Her origins are very old, dating back to the Roman Emperor Trajan in around 115 CE. Hayez has here been liberal in his interpretation, adding a crucifix and a book, and encouraging interesting speculation as to the intention of his allegory.


Not known, Painted ceiling in the Auberge de Provence, Valletta, Malta, depicting Melita, further details not known. By Stefan Bellini, via Wikimedia Commons.

This spectacular painted ceiling in Valletta shows Melita, who is seen with the flag of the Order of Saint John, which was based on Malta at one time. She has been the basis of several postage stamps issued by Malta.


Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Allegory of the November Uprising (Polonia, 1831) (1831), watercolor and gouache on paper, 49.6 × 39 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

In the eighteenth century, the Polish nation was often personified by Polonia, here being brutally trampled on in the suppression of the November Uprising of 1831. This theme was revisited in paintings by Jacek Malczewski.

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), Polish Hamlet – Portrait of Aleksander Wielopolski (1903), oil on canvas, 100 × 148 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

This is Malczewski’s incisive political commentary on the career of Aleksander Ignacy Jan-Kanty Wielopolski (1803-1877), head of Poland’s civil administration under the Russian Empire. Wielopolski was sent to London to try to obtain the assistance of the British government during the 1831 November Uprising in Poland, then wrote a controversial letter responding to the Galician massacres in 1845, and tried to stop the growing Polish national movement in 1863. However, in forcing the conscription of young Polish men into the Russian Army, he provoked the January Uprising of 1863, which forced him to flee into exile in Dresden. Wielopolski is shown with the young Polonia at the left, and the old and traditional Polonia at the right.


Cristóvão de Morais (fl 1550-1575), Portrait of King Sebastian I of Portugal (1571-1574), oil on canvas, 100 x 85 cm, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, Portugal. Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to its use of the Republic (see Brazil, above), Portugal draws on its legendary King Sebastian I, who brought further expansion of the Portuguese Empire. His companion greyhound symbolises the empire.


Uroš Predić (1857–1953), Kosovo Maiden (1919), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The Kosovo Maiden is a central figure in Serbian epic poetry. She is searching the battlefield after the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 for her fiancé, and finds his companion dying. She learns from him that her fiancé is already dead, but she continues to aid the wounded and dying. She is thus a symbol of womanly compassion and charity.

United Kingdom

The most enduring personification is Britannia, who has been painted by several artists. My choice of those is the less well-known fresco commissioned of William Dyce by Queen Victoria, for the Queen and Prince Albert’s new and luxurious holiday palace of Osborne House, at East Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

William Dyce (1806–1864), Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea (1847), fresco, 350 x 510 cm, Osborne House, East Cowes, Isle of Wight, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Neptune stands astride his three white seahorses, holding their reins in his right hand, and passing his crown with the left. The crown is just about to be transferred by Mercury (with wings on his cap) to the gold-covered figure of Britannia, who holds a ceremonial silver trident in her right hand.

Neptune is supported by his entourage in the sea, including the statutory brace of nudes and conch-blowers. At the right, Britannia’s entourage is more serious in intent, and includes the lion of England, and figures representing industry, trade, and navigation.

United States of America

Edward Moran (1829–1901), The Statue of Liberty Unveiled (1886), media and dimensions not known, Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

The most popular personification is, of course, the Statue of Liberty, showing the Roman goddess of liberty, and a monument to American independence given by the French nation. Its unveiling and dedication on 28 October 1886 is recorded well in Edward Moran’s painting.

John Gast (1842-1896), Spirit of the Frontier (1872), further details not known. Image by Jared Farmer, via Wikimedia Commons.

Among the other personifications is that of Columbia, representing America, and is here aided by technology to bring the ‘light’ of the east to the dark west, as the settlers drive Native Americans and bison into obscurity.


Christopher Williams (1873-1934), Deffroad Cymru (The Awakening of Wales) (1911), media and dimensions not known, Swansea, Wales. Wikimedia Commons.

This nationalistic allegory was shown at Caernarfon Castle in 1911, during the investiture there of the Prince of Wales. It shows the personification of the Welsh nation, a young woman, emerging from the jaws of a sea dragon, in a birth analogous to that of Venus.


Titian (1490–1576), The Rape of Europa (c 1560-62), oil on canvas, 178 x 205 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, Europe is not a nation by any means, and the goddess Europa is no personification of the European Union, I hope. She is best known for her abduction and rape by Zeus, who assumed the form of a white bull. Once transformed into the bull, Zeus mixed in with Europa’s family herd. When Europa and her friends were gathering flowers, she saw the bull, stroked it, and got astride it. Zeus seized the opportunity, ran to the sea, then swam across to Crete with Europa on his back. Although Europa ended up as the first Queen of Crete, and the father of King Minos, this is not a personification which the European Union would choose, I am sure.