Artist: Eugene Delacroix
Dimensions: 392 x 496 cm
Medium: Oil on Canvas
The Death of Sardanapalus was created from the inspiration of Byron’s 1821 tragedy Sardanapalus. Yet, Delacroix did not precisely follow the text in the poem, but to depict in a more destructive way by his own imagination.1
In The Death of Sardanapalus, the city of Assyrian King, Sardanapalus, was under attack by an alliance of Medes, Persians and Babylonians. Learning that he was going to be defeated, instead of facing this humiliation, he would rather choose to end his life together with all his precious possessions. His concubines, including his favorite Myrrha, his horses, his slaves were all stabbed and killed. He watched the whole progress in his eyes before he ordered to light his funeral pyre around him2. That is to say, he would rather destroy all his valuable possessions than have them left in the hands of his enemies.
Looking into the details of the painting, although the content was considered barbaric and unfavorable by the contemporary critics, this large Salon painting is generally regarded as one of Delacroix’s masterpieces nowadays3. According to John P. O’Neill, “This was the largest, the most Rubensian, the most lavishly colored and ornamented, the most voluptuously savage of Delacroix's paintings to date.”4 It was an early example of practicing the newly invented Romantic picture type, the vignette, with the most bright color and the light shines on the same spot5. From the painting, the light focuses on the bottom right part, one of the King’s concubines was being stabbed. As it edges, surroundings become less defined and darker, even the King himself is a bit hidden in the shadow. It is possible that Delacroix tried to depict the King like an “outsider” since he remained apathetic among the corpses and chaos, as to achieve greater dramatic contrast. Unlike the thick brushstrokes style he practiced in his other artworks, most parts of this painting were in tight and precise brushstrokes. Together with the lavish red and yellow colors jumping off, the whole painting seems like a “sophisticated murderous scene”.
As a work created in the peak of Romantic movement, I would say this painting is quite a typical artwork of romanticism. Especially for the emphasis on the expression of emotion6. The brutal killing creates savage scenes on the painting. His women, slaves, horses, all struggle to live. Their despair facial expressions and outstretched body gestures clearly show their fear and pain. Too many killings occurred at the same time. When they were depicted on the one single painting, it seems kind of “crowded”. This contributes to create a more chaotic atmosphere, despite the King himself. He reclined on his extravagant bed, lying on a sumptuous red cushion, remained emotionless watching the whole progress. In his eyes we see no apathy for his formerly beloved treasures. The great contrast contributes to the dramatic tension of the painting.
Apart from the expression of emotion, the painting profoundly shows Delacroix’s individual imagination. As a matter of fact, the artwork was created before his oriental trip. It is to say that, it was his pre-oriental painting7. The painting itself is depicting an oriental story, it is easy to discover that Delacroix tried hard to paint the oriental elements as detailed as possible, from the decorations of the king’s bedroom, people’s costumes, and the rich red and yellow color etc. By that time Delacroix had never been to the east, all the elements he depicted were under his own imagination to the mysterious east in the eyes of an European. That is how the painting gives a very exotic feeling, together with the sense of nostalgia for the past and the interest in “long ago” and “far away” stories, which reflect the features of romantic art8.
To me, it was a shock when I saw the painting at the first time. Barbaric, violent, cruel, sentimental, helplessness, dramatic, desperate, desire, despair, decadence, destruction… these are the words that first came into my mind. Seeing the chaotic scenes all over the painting, I soon discovered there was one character not involved with the others — the King. I quickly assume that there must be an interesting story behind. That explains how this painting aroused my interest. It is true that this painting is filled with violent elements. However, I personally see this is the means that the artist used to show his ideas, just like any other means used by other artists.
I shall not try to guess what Delacroix tried to convey, perhaps only he would truly know. While in my view, I think it can relate to the historical background. By that time, French Revolution was in progress and Charles X was still the king of France. The painting thoroughly reflects the extreme degeneration of human desires. The Assyrian king not only wanted to be the ruler of his kingdom in his lifetime, but also afterlife. Perhaps the painting also question about the monarchy, whether they really care about the well-being of their people, or just exploit them to satisfied royal members’ personally desires.
In conclusion, not only as a masterpiece of artwork, The Death of Sardanapalus remained much to be discussed by people. Different people have different views and no definite answers should be given. At last, here are two questions that I am interested to hear the response from others: “ Do you think this is a typical Romantic artwork? Why or why not?” and “ Do you think this artwork have any correlation with the historical background happening during that period?
Laurie Schneider-Adams, Art Across Time: Vol II, Boston: McGraw Hill College, 2002
John P. O’Neill, edited, Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) : paintings, drawings,