The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix

The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix, is an oil on canvas romantic painting created in 1827 in Paris, France.
The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix (1827)

The Death of Sardanapalus Painting

The Death of Sardanapalus painting c.1844 by romantic painter Eugène Delacroix, located at Philadelphia Museum of Art in USA.
The Death of Sardanapalus
by Eugène Delacroix (1844)
The Death of Sardanapalus is an iconographic work of art made in 1827 by the famous romantic painter Eugène Delacroix using oil on canvas. It is called La Mort de Sardanapale, with the original name that the French painter gave to his work. The Death of Sardanapalus hangs in the collection of Eugène Delacroix paintings in the Louvre Museum of Paris, together with Orphan Girl at the Cemetery, The Massacre at Chios, The Barque of Dante, The Entry of Crusaders in Constantinople and Liberty Leading the People commemorating the July Revolution of 1830. However, a smaller copy painted by French romantic in 1844, is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in USA. The Death of Sardanapalus Delacroix painted in 1844, coincides with the times when he spent more time around the countrysides of Paris and drew a more outwardly religious profile by being a part of the community of the Church of Saint-Sulpice near Delacroix’s death.

The Death of Sardanapalus Meaning in History

1827 painting Death of Sardanapalus Delacroix shows a portrait of Assyrian King Sardanaple on his bed in the center of chaos.
The Death of Sardanapalus
Detail of the Assyrian King
The Death of Sardanapalus is fiercely dynamic canvas painting reminding a big funeral pyre. It is about the ancient tale of the Assyrian King Sardanapalus and his order given to the guards in his last moments when the palace was besieged. Although Sardanapalus is often confused with Ashurbanipal, the last king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, it is more likely that he was actually his rebellious brother, King Shamash-shum-ukin, ruler of the province of Babylon, however both of two brothers shared a similar fate. Eugène Delacroix, who painted the Death of Sardanapalus, reaches the old story from the manuscripts found in the library of the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus and depicts this historical event in sumptuous colors and large brushstrokes on a large canvas.

Lord Byron c. 1813, made by Richard Westall, depicting the English poem and peer, composed the Death of Sardanapalus play.
Portrait of Lord Byron
by Richard Westall
The painting encodes the tragic story of Sarnadapalus, the last king of Nineveh, an Assyrian city located between the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, and geographically close to present-day Iraq. As soon as the ruler learned that his city and castle were surrounded by the rebels, he ordered the destruction of all the things and people he valued so as not to make an inevitable defeat worse according to the ancient story. This is an issue that should be evaluated in terms of the living conditions and laws of that period, as it can be evidence of the deterioration of the psychological state of a nobleman in the event of a humiliating defeat. According to the records, the last order of the legendary king, who died in 876 BC, to his soldiers was to be destroyed and burned together with his wives, horses, precious jewels and his favorite Myrrha, which makes the indifferent pose and gestures of the main figural subject Sardanapalus in the chaos environment even more interesting. At the same time, it is obvious that Delacroix was inspired by the peerage Lord Byron, who was one of the leading figures of Romantic Movement in the English poem and literature. Although Delacroix drew inspiration from George Gordon Byron for his work, the painting does not exactly follow Byron’s tragedy.

The Death of Sardanapalus Analysis

Modernist Grant Wood's American Gothic painting c.1930, depicts an older farmer couple, related to the Death of Sardanapalus.
American Gothic
by Grant Wood
The Death of Sardanapalus reveals the French painter’s own disegno by depicting the massacre that took place in the main room of the palace in a more striking way, especially in the last hour of a defeated warrior king. This is also in line with the motto “Every Painter Paints Himself”, which has been handed down from generation to generation throughout all art movements. While Caravaggio’s baroque paintings of David and Goliath (Madrid, Vienna, Rome) are the examples this motto for Baroque Era, American Gothic by Grant Wood and Picasso paintings like The Blue Room and The Old Guitarist effectuate examples for Modernism and Blue Period. Delacroix’s work is more striking than the tragedy of Lord Byron and the inscriptions of Diodorus Siculus. Hearing the news that his army was defeated by the rebels, the king wanted all of his assets including possessions and treasures to be destroyed rather than falling into the hands of the enemy. The situation, which is also described as an undergo capture in the literature, is about to transform the monarch into a heroic figure who prefers to determine his own fate instead of waiting desperately for the end, however the king is not spoken of as a leader or a hero, because of the reckless pose and cruelty of his order, which creates a stark contrast to the situation.

Eugène Delacroix the Death of Sardanapalus Painter

Self-Portrait of Eugène Delacroix, painted himself in 1837, the romantic painter well-known for the Death of Sardanapalus.
Self-Portrait by
Eugène Delacroix (1837)
The Death of Sardanapalus painting was the third well-known oil canvas of the romantic artist. Delacroix, who went to his first exhibition in his thirties, came from a bureaucratic and elite family, in which the French King has also known. The artist’s mother, Victoire Oeben, was a very cultured woman of royal lineage, while her father, Charles-François Delacroix was a French statesman and the Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Bourbon Restoration Government of King Louis-Philippe I aka People King (Le Roi Citoyen). He studied at Pierre-Narcisse Guérin’s art studio in Paris and introduced him to some of the great artists and salon owners of the time, such as Antoine-Jean Gros and François Gérard. The first of the reasons why Delacroix is
​​known as a color master is that he was inspired by more than one movement and technique.

Portrait of Louis-Philippe I, the People King of France by Franz Winterhalter c.1841, related to the Death of Sardanapalus.
Portrait of Louis-Philippe I
by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
He created his own special style by combining Michelangelo’s disegno, the color riot of Titian from the Venetian School, and the use of light by baroque painters such as Peter Paul Rubens in a pot, and he managed to transfer this distinctive style to his romantic successors such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Édouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The romantic masterpiece is one of the most important paintings of Delacroix, who, thanks to his special art style, broke the neoclassical understanding of painting imposed by the French Academy and gave direction to the Romanticism Movement. The romantic painter availed himself of a coloring method that forms the basis of the Impressionism technique that will become famous later on, creating an illusion effect on the audience in a transition from left to right and from top to bottom, with the colors of pure white, golden yellow and vibrant red, which initially attracted a negative reaction at his first exhibition during Romantic Era. Eugène, who was in close contact with English romantic painters and landscapers such as John Constable, Richard Parkes Bonington and Joseph Mallord William Turner, has proven his mastery in the use of color in this set piece too. During the artist’s visiting England in 1825, he learned about asymmetric and diagonal structures. The romantic artwork is one of the milestones of visual arts, by letting Eugène Delacroix determine the fate of fine art movements and artists including Impressionist painters such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, and Post-Impressionist painters such as Edgar Degas and Henri Matisse, with its groundbreaking innovative approach.

The Death of Sardanapalus Orientalism

The Battle of Nancy by romantic painter Eugène Delacroix c.1831, related to the Death of Sardanapalus via rich vivid colors.
The Battle of Nancy by
Eugène Delacroix (1831)
The Death of Sardanapalus is quite a unique painting in terms of its use of colour. It is known that Eugène Delacroix, together with Count Charles de Mornay, the ambassador of People King Louis-Philippe I, who came to power after the 1830 Revolution, visited French colonies of the period such as North Africa and Algeria and acquired new colors and objects from these places, however the romantic masterpiece was created before his visits to the Eastern World. With the inspiration of Napoleon’s victory in Egypt and thanks to the romantic painter’s bureaucrat friends, his art shifted to Orientalism and he began to paint oriental subjects and figures, such as The Barque of Dante, The Entry of Crusaders in Constantinople, The Sultan of Morocco.

Eugène Delacroix's the Death of Sardanapalus painting, reveals the details of an elephant head and a woman, wife of the king.
The Death of Sardanapalus
Details of Elephant Head
and Woman
Among these works, each of which evokes famous wars, sieges or emperors, there is a unique artwork, The Battle of Nancy belonging to the French World of European Art. Napoleon Bonaparte’s influence on Delacroix’s art is better understood when we look at objects such as the winged sun of Egypt symbolizing royalty and divinity in the Ancient Near East and the Egyptian-style headdress worn by the Moors, what is an exonym used to describe Muslim inhabitants during the Middle Ages. On the king’s white turban, neck, fingers and ear, there lies gold jewels and earrings, representing the greatness of his wealth. Details such as the elephant head and the king’s white turban are of Indian origin. Delacroix created the objects and selected the mute colors in the painting as far from European as possible and with a mindset targeting the Eastern World, which was the root of the behavior that forms the origin of Orientalism Movement, in short creating artworks being non-European.

The Death of Sardanapalus Iconography

In the romantic artwork the Death of Sardanapalus, Delacroix painted a crouching woman as one of the wives of the king.
The Death of Sardanapalus
Detail of Crouching Woman
The Death of Sardanapalus has a center that reveals a bearded man, who has been depicted lying on his bed with a Indian turban on his head. This figure is the main focus of the painting for the viewer. While the desperate king is in his long white tunic, his bed is covered with a quality red fabric that represents wealth and nobility. From the painter’s point of view, the king is not a tyrant but an epicurean ruler or a hedonistic monarch. A female figure lies lifeless at the end of the bed. One of the six wives of Assyrian ruler, this figure is followed by five others. A preliminary sketch by the French artist called Crouching Woman forms the basis of one of these women.

Crouching Woman painted by romantic artist Eugène Delacroix in 1827, a preliminary sketch for the Death of Sardanapalus.
Crouching Woman by
Eugène Delacroix (1827)
While the artist paints women almost completely without clothes, male characters are depicted as ideal figures in Classical Period paintings. While the artist painted women almost completely without clothes, male characters were depicted as ideal figures in classical and Baroque Period paintings, such as David and Goliath paintings (Madrid, Vienna, Rome) of Caravaggio. Eugène Delacroix, as one of the fathers of the Romantic Movement, presents the exact drawing approach of Classicism and the realistic scenes of the Romantic Period in a perfect harmony, however, the female figures in the Death of Sardanapalus are free from vulgar and reactionary details, as Lady Liberty character aka La Marianne has in Liberty Leading the People.

The Death of Sardanapalus, Eugène Delacroix's romantic painting reveals a golden jug and a chalise upon an ancient column.
The Death of Sardanapalus
Details of Golden Jug and Chalise
While all the women in the picture were killed by the monarch’s guards, a man kneeling to the left of the king in front of an ancient column with a golden jug and a chalice is dying with a knife blow to his chest. Looking at the posture, hairstyle and facial expression of this man, it can be seen that he resembles the angry soul in The Barque of Dante painting that bites the boat on which Dante Alighieri and Virgil are riding. Slightly in front of this man with a sword wound, another figure, painted in darker tones, is trying to control a white horse, which is heavily decorated with a golden saddle and fancy silk fabrics. It is a very sharp detail that the two young characters hiding behind a column at the junction of the king’s right arm and the golden luxurious goods are, not related to the chaos in the environment.

Eugène Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus painting reveals a wounded man reminding the demon souls in the Barque of Dante.
The Death of Sardanapalus
Detail of Wounded Man
These two young people are depicted with different colored turbans on their heads among the golden elephant figurines, gold goblets and other shiny ornaments. Their headwears represent the nobility and right to the throne, as related to the patriarchy, or knowledge and experience inherited from the past generations in the Eastern World. Although a column has been drawn on the upper part of the canvas, which may offer clues about the heritage structures of the period, in a small area, the remaining areas are blurred for the purpose of drawing attention to the chaos in the center of the canvas. On the other hand, Delacroix did not use a pyramidal system as in Liberty Leading the People or Géricault
s The Raft of the Medusa has.

The Death of Sardanapalus Romanticism and Painting Technique

Eugène Delacroix's the Death of Sardanapalus work c.1827, includes the golden ornaments and luxury items in chaos.
The Death of Sardanapalus
Detail of Golden Ornaments
The Death of Sardanapalus is an excellent work that fully reflects the emotional and harsh nature of Romanticism. The French painter used painterliness concept with a strong sense of movement to make the viewer feel the chaos of the moment. After the painterliness method became famous by the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, it found a wide area of use in the field of painting by famous names, such as Henri Matisse and Eugenie Baizerman.

The Massacre at Chios by French Eugène Delacroix c.1824, depicting Ottomans and Greeks, related to the Death of Sardanapalus.
The Massacre at Chios by
Eugène Delacroix (1824)
s clever choice of colors and skillful paint techniques plunge the viewers into the chaos and violent conflict at the center of the canvas via skin colors of the suffering women, the clothes and headdress of King Sardanapalus, and the bright jewels in the environment. The female figure standing to the right of the elephant head is the only character of the painting that interacts with the audience by looking directly into the eyes of the viewer. All other figures are doing their duty with high concentration to carry out the orders given to them by the king. From this perspective, subjects of death and chaos are the main themes of the painting. The struggle around the hopeless gaze of the king reminds one of the artist’s other work, The Massacre at Chios having the subject of the persecution of Greek families by Ottoman raiders who came to Chios Island.

Most famous romantic painting Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix c.1830, related to the Death of Sardanapalus.
Liberty Leading the People
by Eugène Delacroix (1830)
When Delacroix
s The Death of Sardanapalus was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1828, it was described by the art community as an unaesthetic, controversial and tumultuous painting. The main figure, Sardanapalus, was a ruler determined to destroy any property and people under his protection that seemed valuable to him because he knew he was going to die. Although the figures and details in the painting are far from simplicity and fine art, Saradanapalus does not resemble the character of La Marianne in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People painting, which received similar reactions at first.

The Oath of the Horatii by Neoclassical paitner Jacques-Louis David c.1784, related to the Death of Sardanapalus.
The Oath of the Horatii by
Jacques-Louis David (1784)
The French master probably knew that his artwork would not be accepted as a heroic epic. But, it is very common for Delacroix
’s nature that rebels against stereotypes. Thats why it can be claimed that the famous master resembles the characters he painted. Since this character is not portrayed as a hero, he is also quite far from the main characters in Jacques-Louis Davids The Oath of the Horatii or Francisco Goyas The Third of May 1808, as the artworks where heroic details are depicted masterfully during the romantic period. Instead, the monarch has been portrayed as a reckless, cruel, and lazy autocrat who enjoys the conflict around him until his last moments.

The Third of May 1808 by romantic Francisco Goya c.1814, related to the Death of Sardanapalus by Delacroix and Romanticism.
The Third of May 1808
by Francisco Goya (1814)
The romantic work is far from presenting a generally accepted moral issue peculiar to the Neoclassical Period with sharp lines and vivid colors that will not tire the audience. In this respect, like some of Delacroix’s other paintings, it is a rebellion against the Academy of Fine Arts and the strict rules of the period. Although romantic painters emerged as a reaction to the Neoclassical Period and changed the course of history, Eugène Delacroix is the most interesting one among these artists in terms of the subjects and themes he used. The Death of Sardanapalus is literally the opposite or antithesis of the paintings of the Neoclassic Period. The foreshortening technique used by the painter was used to bring the main details in the painting closer to the audience, in contrast to the flat and the lack of visual illusions of neoclassical paintings.

The Arnolfini Portrait by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck c.1434, having a distorted perspective like the Death of Sardanapalus.
The Arnolfini Portrait
by Jan van Eyck (1434)
The more primitive use of the foreshortening technique via distorted lines, can also be seen in The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, the most famous painter of the Northern Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age, however things like color use and painting techniques are completely different between two masterpieces. A similar pattern of distorted perception can be seen in the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog painting of another romantic Caspar David Friedrich, as one of Delacroix’s contemporaries. The Sea of Fog is closer to Delacroix’s work in its use of watercolor-like fluid tones, but without the warm colors of yellow brown and red painted on a dark background like it. The Romantic movement is a reaction to its predecessor, the Neoclassical Movement. Although each art movement is the successor of the next, it is obvious that neoclassical artists were inspired by more Renaissance set pieces.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich c.1818, related to the Death of Sardanapalus.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog
by Caspar David Friedrich
Instead of Neoclassical painters who pay attention to historical details and tones that are easy on the eyes, artists such as Delacroix and his contemporaries Théodore Géricault and Gustave Courbet acted with emotions found in nature and human beings such as imagination, divinity, sacrifice and horror, which are distorting reality and expressing personal feelings and perspectives. They produced outstanding works. The artist, as a leader of Romanticism, he has put forward his intelligence and excessive creativity, likewise Charles Baudelaire said about being passionately in love with passion. Delacroix is
​​a name that has created his own passionate style and attracted attention with the influence of names such as Michelangelo and Titian, who were the masters of the Renaissance Period.

The Death of Sardanapalus Story in Fine Arts

Self-Portrait of baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens c.1623, related to the Death of Sardanapalus of romantic Eugène Delacroix.
Self-Portrait by Peter
Paul Rubens (1623)
The Death of Sardanapalus was a quite progressive artwork in contemporary paintings of its period. Delacroix created the oriental painting with a method close to today’s vignette images, due to the nature of his rebelling against the perception of beauty of the period and the exact drawing concept insisted by the Academy of Fine Arts. In addition to the painterliness style, this vignette style is designed to keep the blurry characters in the corners of the picture in dark by painting them in dark colors, and to draw attention to the figures in the middle by staying in the light with more vivid colors. Abundant use of golden yellow and bright red fabric is an example of the attention created by these vibrant colors. The technique used by the artist for shading is close to the Chiaroscuro technique, which found a great place in the Baroque Period and utilized by masters like Peter Paul Rubens and Johannes Vermeer, who are best-known for The Night Watch and Girl with a Pearl Earring.

The Death of Sardanapalus by Delacroix reveals six different woman postures on painting, dedicated to the Naiads of Rubens.
The Death of Sardanapalus
Details of the Women in Painting
The artist may have used some of the Naiads paintings of Rubens as a model for the wives of Sardanapalus. Naiads are the names of sea nymphs in Greek Mythology. There exist six wives related to the Assyrian king and each of them revealing a unique posture according to the French artist. The attacked concubines and animals seem to have a cloud of mist over them, pulling them to the other world. While this painting style puts the partially unimportant events in the picture into the background, the artist’s desire for us to see brings the figures to the fore. According to the perspective of the romantic artist, those women had suffered from the unnecessary order of their ruler and husband, who thought that their lives would be in danger anyway under the rule of rebels that defeated his army and besieged the palace.

The Death of Sardanapalus Descriptions and Reactions

The Death of Sardanapalus, which was described as a barbaric moment in its first exhibition, is considered one of Delacroix’s most famous works, although it was not shown again for a long time until it’s been a part of the Louvre Collection. At the first time that portrait of Sardanapalus was exhibited at the Salon of 1828, it was criticized by a commentator as a fanaticism of ugliness, according to quotations from the English novelist Dorothy Bussy. American art historian Linda Nochlin stated that the reason why the painting was criticized by Delacroix
s contemporaries and described as ugly, was that it left an impression which destroyed the wall between the Western World and the perception of Orientalism of the period. Although the work was seen as a terrible and ugly chaos at first, its value was understood by art community over time.

After the Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix

Portrait of Princess Cristina Trivulzio Belgiojoso by Francesco Hayez c.1832, related to the Death of Sardanapalus.
Portrait of Cristina Trivulzio
by Francesco Hayez (1832)
The Death of Sardanapalus is a masterpiece, which was repeated or inspired in many fields from visual arts to auditory arts. Hungarian teacher, composer and pianist Franz Liszt, as one of the famous names in Romantic music, was influenced by the romantic artwork and composed the Sardanapalo (or Sardanapale), an Italian opera representing the self destruction of the king of Assyrian Empire. Although the famous musician told his close associate Princess Cristina Belgiojoso that the entire audience would descend on the stage in the final scene, by being confident that his work would draw attention, he left the project in 1852 after composing only the first stage. The Opera Sardanapalo was completed on 19 August 2018 and had its world premiere in Weimar, however Liszt had planned to perform his work in Milan, Vienna and finally in Paris or London respectively.

August Prinzhofer's portrait of Louis Hector Berlioz, whose a cantata played in 1830 named Sardanapalus after Delacroix.
Portrait of Louis Hector
Berlioz by August
Prinzhofer (1845)
While the romantic work took its first inspiration from Lord Byron
s play Sardanapalus, written and staged in 1821, it inspired a cantata performed by Hector Berlioz in 1830, named as Sardanapale and Franz Liszts Sardanapalo Opera between 1845 and 1852, in chronological order. The famous painting French romantic musician and composer, Hector Berlioz, and made him win the Prix de Rome award and spread of his fame. Moreover, Eugène’s set piece inspired many visual artists with its exotic colors, rebellious nature, and modern painting techniques, which has been used in contemporary art movements. Eugène Delacroix was a famous painter at the age of 29, when he chose Sardanapalus’s death as the painting subject. The artist, who would paint his most famous painting Liberty Leading the Poeople only three years later, was known for his mythological painting The Barque of Dante and historical painting The Massacre at Chios, which were already exhibited on the Saloons of 1822 and 1824 respectively. The artist himself defined his work as “Massacre No. 2” after he painted the occupation of Chios and Greek families waiting slavery or death.

The Death of Sardanapalus 1827 Legacy and Dimensions

The Death of Sardanapalus by Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix has the unframed dimensions of 73,70 × 92,60 cm (29,01 × 36,45 inches). After the death of the French artist, the painting was inherited by Legrand, the lawyer and executor of Delacroix
s will. With the death of the attorney, the romantic painting passed under the assets of a French senator and art collector Prosper Crabbe. As Crabbe was a stake broker trading French artworks of the 18th and 19th Centuries, the famous painting soon changed hands and was sold for 70,000 francs at the 1873 Daniel Wilson Sale to Mr. Bellino. The only painting sold at Wilson was the original painting of Eugène Delacroix made in 1827, which is oil on canvas and in the collection of Louvre Museum of Paris, however there exists some other individual owners, corporations or saloons between the years of 1892 and 1935, such as Galerie Georges Petit, Wildenstein & Co., Paul Rosenberg & Co. and Henry Plumer McIlhenny. The famous romantic work has become a contribution to the art community with its rich characteristics and riot of color, as the elements that influenced successor artists regarding periods from Romanticism to Modernism.
The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix Reviewed by Articonog on June 28, 2022 Rating: 5

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