Famous Paintings: Death of Sardanapalus

The Background of Eugene Delacroix.

One of the most well-known painters from the 19th centuryEugene Delacroix (1798-1863) created some of the most famous paintings of this era.  These include Liberty Leading the People and Death of Sardanapalus.  At the age of 17, Delacroix studied with Pierre-Narcisse Guerin (1744-1833) and then enrolled at Paris’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  While there, he carefully copied Old Master paintings in the Louvre and met his mentor, Theodore Gericault (1791-1824), founder of French Romanticism.  

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Eugene Delacroix.  Self-Portrait, 1837.  Oil on canvas, 25 1/12 ” by 24 1/4″.  Louvre, Paris.

After his arts training, Eugene Delacroix traveled to England in 1825.  There, he deepened his appreciation of British landscape and authors, especially Shakespearean plays, the novels of Walter Scott (1771-1832), and the poetry of Lord Bryon (George Gordon; 1788-1824). The young artist was inspired to paint Death of Sardanapalus after discovering one of Bryon’s works, the unrhymed poem, Sardanapalus. 

Death of Sardanapalus.

From Bryon’s poem, contemporaries knew that King Sardanapalus  was the last ruler of the Assyrian empire. After his kingdom was under attack by the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians, the King realized his empire would collapse.  Choosing neither to flee or fight, Sardanapalus then ordered servants to gather his wives, harem, treasures, horse and dog, and lit them, as well as himself, on fire.

Death of Sardanapalus is Delacroix’s dramatic imagining of these final minutes.

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Eugene Delacroix.  Death of Sardanapalus, 1827-1828.  Oil on canvas, 12′ 11 1/2″ by 16′ 3″.  Louvre, Paris.

He presents a chaotic, emotional, claustrophobic composition with a wildly skewed perspective.

The “vanishing point” is a relaxed King who appears indifferent to the pending deaths of his loved ones and himself.  In this work, Delacroix jettisons the conventions of Classicism by ignoring spatial coherence and norms –  a redeeming moral was supposed to be present in a history painting like this.  Not surprisingly, many viewers at the Salon of 1827 were highly offended by this work.

In this masterpiece, you can readily imagine the smells of smoke and the cries of those dying and those knowing their fate.  The work’s energetic composition, intimate detail, and brilliant execution portray pure barbarism.

Influence of Eugene Delacroix’s Famous Paintings.

Although some criticize Delacroix for being a poor draftsman, Death of Sardananapalus shows that he was quite accomplished.  I agree with the late Thomas Hoving, past Director of the Metropolitan Museum, who observed:

…looking at this tightly composed and minutely drawn series of exuberant elements, it is difficult to understand what the naysayers were talking about. Delacroix belongs up there with Rubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Goya as one of the great creators of the indelible visual statement, the kind of painting that never leaves one’s memory. (1)

The list of famous painters who cite Delacroix’s influence is extensive.  It includes Renoir, Paul Gauguin, van Gogh, Cezanne, August Rodin, Georges Seurat, Wassily Kandinsky, and Matisse, an enviable tribute to Delacroix, one of the most influential and famous painters of the 19th century.

(1) Thomas Hoving, Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization (Artisan: New York, 1997), p. 171.

Discover more Delacroix paintings: you’ll need to learn about the then current fashion in hats to fully appreciate his Liberty Leading the People.  Yes, hats.

Interested in seeing more Delacroix paintings, and his drawings, prints, and manuscripts? Mark your calendar for the upcoming Delacroix exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum from Sept. 17, 2018 through January 6, 2019.  Amazingly, it is the first North American exhibition about Delacroix.

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By |2018-07-17T14:57:24+00:00July 5th, 2018|Romanticism paintings|0 Comments

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