The Death of Sardanapalus

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The Death of Sardanapalus
French: La Mort de Sardanapale
Delacroix - La Mort de Sardanapale (1827).jpg
ArtistEugène Delacroix
Year1827 and 1844
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions392 cm × 496 cm (154 in × 195 in) and
73.71 cm × 82.47 cm (29.02 in × 32.47 in)
LocationMusée du Louvre, Paris and Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Death of Sardanapalus (La Mort de Sardanapale) is an oil painting on canvas by Eugène Delacroix, dated 1827. It currently hangs in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.[1] A smaller replica, painted by Delacroix in 1844, is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.[2]

The Death of Sardanapalus is based on the tale of Sardanapalus, a king of Assyria, from the historical library of Diodorus Siculus, the ancient Greek historian, and is a work of the era of Romanticism. This painting uses rich, vivid and warm colours, and broad brushstrokes. It was inspired by Lord Byron's play Sardanapalus (1821), and in turn inspired a cantata by Hector Berlioz, Sardanapale (1830), and also Franz Liszt's opera, Sardanapalo (1845–1852, unfinished).

Visual analysis[edit]

1844 version of the painting (73.71 cm × 82.47 cm), from Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Eugène Delacroix La Mort de Sardanapale, 392 cm × 496 cm (145 in × 195 in) from the Louvre

The main focus of Death of Sardanapalus is a large bed draped in rich red fabric. On it lies a man with a disinterested eye overseeing a scene of chaos. He is dressed in flowing white fabrics and sumptuous gold around his neck and head. A woman lies dead at his feet, prone across the lower half of the large bed. She is one of six in the scene, all in various shades of undress, and all in assorted throes of death by the hands of the half dozen men in the scene. There are several people being stabbed with knives and one man is dying from a self-inflicted wound from a sword, and a man in the left foreground is attempting to kill an intricately adorned horse. A young man by the king's right elbow is standing behind a side table which has an elaborate golden decanter and a cup. There are golden elephant heads at the base of the bed, as well as various valuable trinkets scattered amongst the carnage. In the background, several architectural elements are visible but difficult to discern.

Delacroix used a painterly brushstroke in this painting, which allows for a strong sense of movement in the work. This scene is chaotic and violent, as showcased by the movement, weapons, and the colors used. The redness of the bed stands out against the somewhat obscured, dark background. The whiteness of Sardanapalus's robe, the creamy lines of the dying women's limbs, and the shimmers of gold objects throughout the scene pull the viewer's eye quickly around the painting.

There is asymmetry in the work, but the composition remains balanced. One woman reclined by an elephant head on the end of the bed is the only figure to engage with the viewer. Everyone else in the painting is focused on the task at hand: death.


Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus was controversial and polarizing at its exhibition at the Paris Salon of 1828. Delacroix's main figural subject was Sardanapalus, a king willing to destroy all of his possessions, including people and luxurious goods, in a funerary pyre of gore and excess.[3] Sardanapalus was not a classical hero, like the Horatii in Jacques-Louis David’s eponymous painting. Delacroix's Sardanapalus was the antithesis of neoclassical traditions, which favored subdued colors, rigid space, and an overall moral subject matter. He also used foreshortening to tilt the death scene directly into the space of the audience, a far cry from the subdued order of traditional academic paintings. Dorothy Bussy quotes one critic of the work as calling the painting "the fanaticism of ugliness" when it appeared in the Salon in 1828.[4]

Linda Nochlin has argued that this painting scandalized the salon because it was understood by contemporaries as a destructive sexual fantasy of Delacroix's own--a collapse of the distinction between the "Other" of Orientalism (i.e., Sardanapalus) and western man.[5]

The composer Franz Liszt was inspired by Delacroix's painting (and Byron's play) to compose an Italian opera--Sardanapalo--on the topic, telling Princess Cristina Belgiojoso that, in view of the king's self-immolation, his finale will aim to 'set the entire audience alight'.[6] He completed Act 1 only in 1852 and abandoned the project thereafter. The completed first act received its premiere in 2018.[7][8]


  1. ^ Louvre catalogue entry
  2. ^ Google Art Project, accessed February 11, 2013
  3. ^ Elisabeth Fraser, “Delacroix's Sardanapalus: The Life and Death of the Royal Body,” French Historical Studies 26:2 (2003): 315–349. See also Elisabeth Fraser, Delacroix, Art and Patrimony in Post-Revolutionary France (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  4. ^ Bussy, Eugène Delacroix, 56.
  5. ^ Nochlin, Linda (1989). "The Imaginary Orient". The politics of vision: essays on nineteenth-century art and society. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 42–43.
  6. ^ David Trippett (2018), 385
  7. ^ Connolly, Kate (August 17, 2018). "Liszt's lost opera: 'beautiful' work finally brought to life after 170 years".
  8. ^ "Music to the ears". 18 February 2019.


External links[edit]

External video
video icon Delacroix's The Death of Sardanapalus