Both chaos and violence reign in yet another masterpiece by French Romanticist Eugène Delacroix

The Death of Sardanapalus depicts a jarring scene for the average viewer. Here, images of corpses are strewn amid luxury and colors that shock the senses.

Known for his affinity for striking displays, Delacroix’s 1827 masterpiece is exhibited in the Louvre Museum, together with its younger and better-known sibling, Liberty Leading the People. However, a reproduction made by Delacroix himself 17 years later also hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of  Art.

This article will explore the visual themes, history, and controversies surrounding The Death of Sardanapalus. To date, it remains to be one of the most politically charged works of art, transcending the limits of its time.

 

Exploring the Visual Themes of the Death of Sardanapalus

 

Upon looking at the painting, the first thing that will meet the viewer’s eyes is a sea of red. Swimming in it are corpses, seemingly writhing in agony, piled against one another.

However, a closer look will reveal that these bodies are strewn against the foot of a bed, where a man lies surrounded by luxury. Clothed in rich fabrics and expensive gold jewelry, the man–no, the king–can barely be bothered with the violence around him. The dead woman at his feet sparks him no interest, nor does the man stabbing a woman in the back a few feet away from him.

In contrast with the king’s apathy is a man dying by his own hand by stabbing himself with a sword. While the other characters are focused on inflicting pain on their fellow humans, another is focused on killing his horse.

Here and there, symbols of wealth remind the viewer that brutality is merely a foreground to luxury, littering the margins of the painting: expensive ornaments, intricate carvings, valuable jewelry, and ornate architectural structures. However, the composition of the painting calls for attention to the center: the king and his dead concubine.

Strategically, this sea of red is balanced with the yellows and the ivory shade of human skin in the center of the painting, while the edges take on a darker tone to focus on the central characters and, at the same time, reflect the subject matter that Delacroix meant to discuss in his oeuvre.

Presently, The Death of Sardanapalus is considered a great study of color for artists for its clever use of hues to convey meaning and command attention.

His broad brushstrokes, meanwhile, echoed the painting’s violence. While movement may be clearly seen in his technique, his artistry falls nothing short of precise, an homage to his classical training as an artist. Each detail of the painting was made with an intimate attention to detail, distinguishing his early roots as an artist from his later works where his brushstrokes are known to be swifter and thicker.

 

Unraveling the Painting’s History

 

A beige sketch features multiple partially colored figures, including a dynamic muscular man, two headscarf-clad women, and two partially nude women lying down.

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It is common knowledge that The Death of Sardanapalus was heavily inspired by Lord Byron’s 1821 play, Sardanapalus. This is based on the tale of Sardanapalus, once crowned king of Assyria, whose tragic life inspired Delacroix to craft one of his best masterpieces.

The last king of Nineveh, a city that would now be in present-day Iraq and sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and the Caspian Sea, Sardanapalus took to destroying everything he held dear upon learning that his enemies were going to attack his city. 

Nothing survived his final act of madness: not even his concubines, his slaves, his horses, not even himself.

In the end, all his prized possessions were burned alongside him in his own funeral pyre, abandoning all hope after his tragic defeat. To Sardanapalus, pride was a price he was not willing to pay even after his enemies ravaged his city. His possessions remained his until the very end.

While Delacroix may have been inspired by Sardanapalus’s tragedy, he was not faithful to Lord Byron’s text. The artist merely utilized the central theme of his story and scaled up the destruction by adding in more people and possessions, which, during Sardanapalus’s time, usually meant the same thing.

In contrast with what the literary tragedy suggests, Delacroix’s king remains apathetic in the face of defeat. Despite ordering the destruction of his worldly possessions against the backdrop of his own bedroom, the central character does not exhibit any sign of remorse as his servants murders his concubines and animals.

His use of the tale of Sardanapalus is a critique of French politics in the early 19th century. Since the painting boasts of Orientalist themes, as can be seen in the designs of the jewelry and the furniture strewn about, Delacroix intends to depict the East as morally corrupt.

At the same time, he warns his French audience that their country might approach the same fate. This is what happened to the ancient king of Assyria, he seems to say, and this is what will happen to “civilized” France if it continues to swathe in excess.

 

Embracing its Critical Acclaim

 

When Delacroix publicly showed The Death of Sardanapalus in the Salon of Paris in 1827, people were not pleased. Many references would describe the reception as “controversial” and “polarizing” since his masterpiece deviated from the subject matter and techniques of artworks at the time. Wild and devastating, the painting is unfamiliar territory compared to the Neoclassical works, which valued order and balance. His fixation with disaster was far from the acceptable standards of society at the time: death and lust were not themes that they were ready to face in art.

To his contemporaries, Delacroix’s painting was an abomination, which meant that The Death of Sardanapalus was not seen in public for many years after it was shown in the Salon.

When Delacroix died several years later in 1863, the audience saw his masterpiece in a new light. The Death of Sardanapalus was now an inspiration, its shocking use of colors would now pave the way for the techniques of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist era in art.  

In modern day, The Death of Sardanapalus is recognized as a work of genius, not only for its introduction of the vignette style and its use of colors to convey its sentiments, but mostly because of its courage in challenging the artistic and societal norm of its time.