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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“The Death of Sardanapalus” by Eugène Delacroix (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, French - The Death of Sardanapalus
“The Death of Sardanapalus” by Eugène Delacroix

“The Death of Sardanapalus” by Eugène Delacroix depicts the tale of Sardanapalus, a king of Assyria, who, according to an ancient story, exceeded all previous rulers in sloth and decadence. He spent his whole life in self-indulgence, and when he wrote his epitaph, he stated that physical gratification is the only purpose of life. His debauchery caused dissatisfaction within the Assyrian empire, allowing conspiracies against him to develop. Sardanapalus failed to defeat the rebels, and then enemies of the empire join the battle against him. When Sardanapalus’ last defenses collapsed, to avoid falling into the hands of his enemies, Sardanapalus ordered a considerable funeral pyre. On funeral pyre were piled all his gold and valuables. He also ordered that his eunuchs and concubines be boxed inside the pyre to burn them and himself to death. The king’s act of destroying his valued possessions, including people and goods, in a funerary pyre, demonstrates his final depravity.

The story of the death of Sardanapalus is based on the tale from an ancient Greek historian, which inspired Lord Byron’s play Sardanapalus (1821), and in turn inspired a cantata by Hector Berlioz, called Sardanapale in 1830, and Franz Liszt’s opera, Sardanapale (1845–52). Thus, Delacroix’s painting was part of the Romanticism era’s stories of this Sardanapalus. Delacroix’s original painting is dated 1827 and hangs in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, this smaller replica, painted by Delacroix in 1844, hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Delacroix’s composition is centered on a large bed draped in luxurious red fabrics golden and elephant head sculptures at the base of the bed. On it lies Sardanapalus overseeing the chaos. He is dressed in flowing white fabrics with elaborate gold around his neck and head. Also, each of the King’s toes appears to have a ring on it. One woman lies dead at his feet, and five other women are in various stages of undress, and in the act of being stabbed with knives by the King’s men. One man is also attempting to kill the King’s favorite horse, while two young men by the king’s right elbow are attending to the King’s thirst with an elegant golden decanter and a cup. The king’s room is full of treasure, and just outside can be seen the funeral pyre being fired up in preparation for the cremation of the King and all his wealth plus favorite women, men, and horse.

Eugène Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix was an artist regarded as the leader of the French Romantic school. Delacroix’s use of expressive brushstrokes shaped the work of the Impressionists, while his passion for the exotic inspired the artists of the Symbolist movement. Dramatic and romantic content characterized the central themes, which led him to travel in North Africa in search of the exotic.

The Death of Sardanapalus

  • Title:                The Death of Sardanapalus
  • French:            La mort de Sardanapale
  • Artist:              Eugène Delacroix
  • Date:              1844
  • Media:             Oil on Canvas
  • Dimensions:    73.7 × 82.4 cm (29 × 32.4 ″)
  • Museum:        Philadelphia Museum of Art

Eugène Delacroix

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Reflections

  • What is the moral of this story?
  • What part of this story inspired so much art during the Romantic era?

~~~

“The source of genius is imagination alone, . . . the refinement of the senses that sees what others do not see, or sees them differently.”
– Eugène Delacroix

~~~

 


Photo Credit 1)Eugène Delacroix [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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