The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) by Eugene Delacroix
Interpretation of Orientalist History Painting

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The Death of Sardanapalus
By Eugene Delacroix.
(Version in the Louvre)
Regarded as one of the
greatest modern paintings of
the nineteenth century.

The Death of Sardanapalus (1827)


Analysis of The Death of Sardanapalus
Interpretation of Other 19th Century Paintings


Name: The Death of Sardanapalus (La Mort de Sardanapale) (1827)
Artist: Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: History painting (Orientalist)
Movement: Romanticism
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Replica painting of
The Death of Sardanapalus, in
the Philadelphia Museum of Art
By Eugene Delacroix.


A member of a distinguished and artistic family, Delacroix trained under the highly respected academic painter Baron Pierre-Narcisse Guerin (1774-1833), knew the great history painter Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) and was a regular visitor at the social salon of Baron Francois Gerard (1770-1837). But while he may have been one of the best-connected figures in French painting - someone who rubbed shoulders with several eminent practitioners of academic art and its 'official' idiom of neoclassical painting - Delacroix was essentially a rebel. In his early years (he was only 30 when he presented this work at the Paris Salon), he was carried away by his instincts, his imagination and energy, as well as his love of colour. The latter derived from his admiration of Titian and Venetian colour painting - and especially the Venetian credo of colorito - as well as the work of Rubens. For Delacroix, colour added vitality, movement, and urgency, and would always transcend the obsession with precision drawing initiated by Michelangelo (the champion of disegno), and promoted in the 19th century by the French Academy. As one of the great Romantic artists of his day - albeit, one blessed with a thorough and orthodox training - Delacroix constituted an important counterpoint to the more buttoned-up style of neoclassical art, exemplified by the harmonious compositions of J.A.D. Ingres (Delacroix's particular bugbear) and others. See also his other great masterpiece, Liberty Leading the People (1830, Louvre, Paris).

Analysis of The Death of Sardanapalus by Delacroix

The Death of Sardanapalus followed hard on the heels of Delacroix's two earlier successes - his mythological painting The Barque of Dante (1822, Louvre) and his historical work The Massacre at Chios (1824, Louvre) - both of which aroused strong feeling in the critics, although both were bought by the state.

Probably the best-known example of Orientalist Painting - it is based on the legend of the Assyrian King Sardanapalus, as told by the ancient Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily. It takes as its starting point the romantic poem by Lord Byron, published in 1821, which depicts Sardanapalus not as a tyrant, but as a hedonistic Oriental monarch - as a "liberal" whose only wish is the happiness of his people. A major military defeat leaves him caught like a rat in a trap. His palace besieged, he first secures his Queen's safety, and then, together with his favourite, throws himself onto a pyre erected round his throne.



The composition shows the bearded Sardanapalus lounging (upper left) on a sumptuous divan, in the midst of an orgy of death and destruction. As a prelude to his own suicide, he has just ordered all his palace possessions to be destroyed and his concubines put to death. Meantime he watches apathetically as his eunuchs and soldiers slash the throats of his concubines, horses and slaves, while off to the right we can just glimpse the dark smoke of the growing pyre.

This huge canvas (measuring roughly 13 X 16 feet, 4 X 5 metres) explodes before our eyes in a convulsive orgy of movement and colour. The way the scene scatters into all directions, the sheer anarchy of the picture, completely shocked the commentators. Etienne-Jean Delecluze (1781-1863), for example, art critic on the Journal des debats, declared: "the eye cannot extricate itself from this maelstrom of line and colour". A far cry from the motionless neoclassical pictures of Jacques-Louis David and J.A.D. Ingres.

The incredible dynamism of the painting derives from the assymetrical nature of its diagonal structure, the writhing, distorted bodies, and the swirling lines of the composition, as well as the shocking contrast in colours between the white of the female nudes, the black of the eunuchs and the blood red of the divan - all executed in broad, loose brushstrokes. The treatment of colour in this particular work was influenced by Delacroix's study of English watercolour painting and by his contact with John Constable and JMW Turner, as well as Richard Parkes Bonington, during his visit to England in 1825.

A smaller, more expressive and even more richly coloured replica of The Death of Sardanapalus, was painted by the artist in 1844, and now hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Interpretation of Other 19th Century Paintings

The Third of May, 1808 (1814) by Goya.
Prado Museum, Madrid.

The Valpincon Bather (1808) by J.A.D. Ingres
Louvre, Paris.

La Grand Odalisque (1814) by J.A.D. Ingres
Louvre, Paris.

A Burial at Ornans (1850) by Gustave Courbet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

The Artist's Studio (1855) by Gustave Courbet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.


• For analysis of other Orientalist paintings by French artists, see: Homepage.

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