Painting of the Day

28 Jan

Image

 

Death of Sardanapalus. by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). Oil on canvas, 1827. Currently on view at the Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Notes from louvre.fr:

This work confirms Delacroix’s desire to follow in the footsteps of the masters while allowing himself a certain freedom. At first sight, the combination of color and ornament and the energy emanating from the painting may overshadow the methodical and painstaking preparation that went into its construction. This magnificent work—so gigantic that Victor Hugo considered it “beyond small minds”—marked a decisive turning point in Delacroix’s career and in his era.

Delacroix, inspired by Byron’s tragedy Sardanapalus, drew on a range of influences to produce this painting: ancient sources such as Diodorus of Sicily, contemporaries including Victor Hugo and Rossini, and less obvious influences such as Etruscan sculpture, Persian miniatures, and Indian customs. Byron merely hinted at the outcome of his play, which he dedicated to Goethe: besieged by his enemies in his palace, Sardanapalus committed suicide. Delacroix, however, imagined that the king also burned his worldly possessions and everything that had given him pleasure: women, pages, horses, dogs, and treasures. The painter gave expression to his idea through a personal style resulting from his prodigious pictorial culture, a blend of French, Flemish, Dutch, Italian, English, Oriental, classical, and modern influences.

Above a burning pyre, King Sardanapalus, draped in white, reclines on a sumptuous jewel-inlaid bed adorned with gilded elephant heads and covered with scarlet fabric, as his cruel sentence is carried out. This complex, superhuman figure, both judge and executioner, actor and spectator, lies semi-recumbent on the bed, one hand supporting his head. With his beard and turban he resembles a Mughal or Qajar sultan, while his pose evokes a classical statue, a figure by Michelangelo, Delacroix’s Michelangelo in his Studio, Rembrandt’s Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, or Heraclitus in Raphael’s School of Athens.

The force of the composition matches the violence of the event; the subject matter, architectural setting, dramatic technique and tension, theatrical effects of light, and gestures of fear evoke the work of English painters such as Turner, William Etty, and John Martin. The painting is surprising too for the daring of its foreshortened perspective, for the effects of light, and for the cool, clear colors that propel the heart of the scene toward the viewer. The painting features a diagonal—emphasized by the flames of the pyre and the sensually writhing bodies—that crosses from bottom right to top left, its colors gradually changing from a deep red to a pearly pink against which the creamy flesh of the naked bodies and the raw white of the king’s drapery are accentuated.

As the city burns in the distance, the palace seems swept away on a raging wave that destroys all notion of hierarchy, gender, species, and rank. All logic is lost as masters, soldiers, slaves, men, women, animals, bodies, objects, attitudes, movements, materials, life, and death are tangled together in piteous disarray. Brutally cast into the furnace because of the king’s arrogant refusal to surrender, the figures are reminiscent of certain biblical characters, the groups in Charles le Brun’s series of paintings from the life of Alexander, or the massacre of the princes in Jacques-Louis David’s Funeral of Patroclus.

The women resemble the female figures painted by Correggio or Rubens; contrasting with the king’s perfect stillness, they are convulsed with horror, and take their own lives before having their throats slit by officers and slaves. The king’s favorite, Myrrha, lies at his feet, her back naked, her head and arms outstretched on the bed; a guard facing her draws his sword to kill a bare-shouldered female slave. Against a harmony of rich, muted, and refined tones at the bottom right of the funeral pyre, echoing the royal couple, a guard kills a slave whose voluptuous body and pearly golden skin are reminiscent of Rubens’s sea nymphs (in the Galerie Médicis in the Louvre). The bust of a naked woman lying in front of this couple evokes Delacroix’s Mulatto Woman; to their right, a man submits to his fate, head in hands, while another beseeches the king, one arm outstretched. In the half-light at the top right of the painting, Aischeh (whom the painter mentions in the Salon booklet) has hung herself. The central figures are set off by a more compact group to the left of the pyre. At the top, level with the king, his cup-bearer Baleah (also named in the booklet) presents him with a ewer, basin, and towel. A woman just below veils her face before a man who stabs himself in the chest. The brightness of the central scene is balanced by the bottom left corner, with the dark but translucent forearm of the black slave and the dapple gray of the horse he pulls toward the pyre. This small group, like the overall composition, recalls the vigor of painters such as Théodore Géricault, Antoine-Jean Gros, Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, and Tintoretto.

Delacroix used well distributed colors, contrasts of light, shadow, and halftones, extremes of red and white, swift brushstrokes, and a subtle play of bold, vibrant impasto juxtaposed with clear bright glaze to glorify the smoothness of flesh, the shimmer of fabrics, and the gleam of the jewels and treasures in the foreground of his painting. This technique, coupled with rich and intricate ornamentation, creates a strong sense of life, movement, and aesthetic unity.

The many preparatory sketches made by the painter over a six-month period, in which he analyzed the movements and positions of the bodies, the accessories, the groups, the tension and dynamics of the scene, and the intensity of expressions, reflect his desire to dominate the overall composition yet preserve its spontaneity.

After the travels of Champollion and Dominique Vivant Denon, ancient oriental subjects were in vogue among both Neoclassical and contemporary painters, as were Egypt, Palmyra, Persia, and biblical themes. Delacroix knew that the only way of making his mark on his era was to interpret such subjects in a highly personal manner that would distinguish him from the great masters of the past. But devotees of classicism and institutional authorities judged his turbulent composition, with its cascade of figures, violent emotions, and muscular bodies, to be subversive, like the work of English painters who were considered avant-gardist. At the time, therefore, the question of form took priority over the artist’s reflection on civilization and destiny, and over the emotion of his work and its intellectual, sensual, poetic, visual, and spiritual expression.

My comments:

Coincidentally, this painting has appeared in my academic life several times, although I haven’t thought about it or seen it since AP Art History a year ago. First it appeared in the article I mentioned in my post yesterday by Linda Nochlin titled The Imaginary Orient, and she referenced it to make what I thought was a specious point that Delacroix was expressing his personal fantasies of dominating women with an oriental subject matter that would make his exploitation more acceptable to his french audience. 

The painting surfaced again today when I was talking about Marilyn Stokstad’s art history textbook with my art history professor Michael Cothren, who co-authored the latest edition of the textbook. He told me that Stokstad was adamant about not including any artwork in the textbook that depicted violence against women, and for her, Death of Sardanapalus was one of the worst offenders of this rule. 

My personal feeling is that no art, no matter what it depicts, should be excluded from a textbook or a museum. That is plain censorship. To me, it’s no different from banning Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray for its homosexual overtones. Students deserve the chance to see all art and discuss its controversial aspects, and decide for themselves whether it’s even controversial. Art History, in my mind, is a crucial discipline for telling us how people have lived in the world then and now. It’s so crucial that art historians and teachers don’t give them their preferred view of that world. 

Leaving that aside, I think this painting is very interesting for the way Delacroix has used countless undulating, curvilinear lines to evoke a sense of motion and chaos in the painting. For some reason whenever I see the painting, I think that the scene is on fire, even though upon second glance I can detect no evidence of flames. But the artist has done such a good job of evoking sheer mayhem and a sense of the apocalypse that it feels as if the scene should be on fire, for what we see playing out is just that crazy. 

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