A-Level: Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus

Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827, oil on canvas, 12′ 10″ x 16′ 3″ / 3.92 x 4.96 m (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the Louvre, and we’re looking at Delacroix’s “The Death of Sardanapalus,” which was exhibited at the Salon of 1827.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:12] It’s a huge canvas, and it turns every classical rule on its head.

Dr. Harris: [0:17] Including the idea of having a painting with a hero. Here, we have Sardanapalus, who is anything but a hero.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] This is the height of Romantic painting. In fact, its story comes from a Romantic poet, Lord Byron.

[0:31] It’s the story of this Assyrian king, Sardanapalus, who is being vanquished in battle, but rather than surrender has decided not only to kill himself, he’s going to destroy everything that he finds pleasure in — the women, his slaves, all of his ornament, all of his treasure will be burned. Everything will come to an end. So this is [a] giant funerary pyre.

Dr. Harris: [0:52] He sits high up on that bed propping his head up, looking with supreme indifference at the end of the lives of the women in his life, the end of all of his beautiful possessions.

Dr. Zucker: [1:04] This is a painting that is about corruption. It is the antithesis of the nobility of David and of the Neoclassical tradition that came before Romanticism.

Dr. Harris: [1:13] If you think back to Neoclassical paintings, with their very rigorous construction of space where you can really clearly see where everything is in relationship to everything else, here we have a space that’s just full of objects. All of the king’s really luxurious possessions — gold and jewels and horses. The space isn’t so much constructed as filled up.

Dr. Zucker: [1:36] It feels like everything in it, all the bodies, the horses, the objects, they’re all flames themselves, recalling the flame that’s about to be there. Licking up in these serpentine curvilinear forms.

[1:47] Look at the horse, for instance, which is practically an S-shape. Look at one of the arms of the harp that’s in the bottom middle or the women themselves, these arabesques. You can look at the scarf at the bottom of the bed. All of these things are snakelike and serpentine, as if they themselves are the flames that are referenced.

Dr. Harris: [2:04] There’s all of this sense of writhing movement, but the king at the top, who sits very still and watches with that corrupt gaze on this bed that’s foreshortened, and so we have this idea of everything spilling down into our space, very much the artist’s intention to engage the viewer and to appeal to our emotions.

[2:25] The woman in the foreground is being brutally murdered right before our eyes. The horse is being pulled against its will to a funeral pyre. This is a scene of death and destruction that’s happening as close as possible to the viewer’s space.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] This must have been such a huge shock to a public that was used to looking at the clarity, and precision, and geometry, the rationalism, the heroism of the Neoclassical.

[2:51] All of this violence, all of this luxury is perfectly suited to Delacroix’s signature use of brilliant color. At least in contrast to the kind of modulation of color that — the very subtly colored paintings that were traditional in the Salon.

Dr. Harris: [3:05] If we look at the flesh of the figures, we don’t see just that normal tonal modeling that we’ve come to expect in Neoclassical paintings.

[3:13] We see figures where the shadows are greens and blues and the highlights are oranges and gold. Delacroix’s really thinking about color in a much more emotional and passionate way.

Dr. Zucker: [3:26] This painting really is an orgy of violence. It’s an orgy of luxury. It’s an orgy of corruption.

[3:32] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-Level: Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus," in Smarthistory, July 13, 2017, accessed July 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/delacroix-the-death-of-sardanapalus-2/.