Based on one of Byron's , Sardanapalus, a tragedy about a bored, luxurious monarch who one day in a pique of ennui has all of his possessions, slaves, etc and himself destroyed and burned. Eugéne Delacroix's painting The Death of Sardanapalus, (1826) is an example of pictoral grand opera on a colossal scale.
    Think'st thou there is no tyranny but that
    Of blood and chains? The despotism of vice--
    The weakness and the wickedness of luxury--
    The negligence--the apathy--the evils
    Of sensual sloth--produces ten thousand tyrants,
    Whose delegated cruelty surpasses
    The worst acts of one energetic master,
    However harsh and hard in his own bearing.
    - Sardanapalus (act I, sc. 2) Tyranny

Undoubtedly he was inspired by Lord Byron's narrative poem, but the painting does not illustrate the text. Instead Delacroix depicted the last hour of the ancient king in a much more tempestuous and crowded setting than Byron described, with orgiastic destruction replacing the sacrificial suicide found in the poem. In the painting, on hearing the defeat of his armies and the enemies entry into his city, the king orders all of his most precious possessions--his women, slaves, horses, and treasure--destroyed in his sight while he watches gloomily from his funeral pyre, soon to be set alight.

The king presides like a genius of evil over the panorama of destruction, most conspicuious in which are the tortured and dying bodies of his Rubenesque women, the one in the foreground dispatched by an ecstatically murdurous slave. This carnival of suffering and death is glorified by superb drawing and color, by the most daringly difficult and tortuous poses, and by the rich intensities of hue and contrasts of light and dark. The king is in the center of the calamity, the quiet eye of a hurricane of form and color. It is a testament to Delacroix's genius that his center of meaning is placed away from the central action yet entirely controls it.

Delacroix's composition in The Death of Sardanapalus is an early example in painting of the newly invented Romantic picture type called the vignette, an image with a stong center that becomes less defined as it edges. In the The Death of Sardanapalus, everything swirls around the empty foot of the bed, but details fade toward the edge of the canvas. Similarly vortical compositions were common in painters of the dynamic Baroque (Peter Paul Reubens The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, , 1617), but in Delacroix's work this device extended it's effect to a then unknown, and not entirely appreciated , degree (the work pleased none of the critics of the day).

The Death of Sardanapalus painted between 1827-1828 is an oil on canvas and currently resides at the Louvre in Paris, France.


De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Justus, Kevin. "Art and Culture II." Tucson , Arizona. 1992. (Lecture presented at Pima Community College.)

Public domain text taken from
GIGA Quote Author Page for Lord Byron (George Gordon Noel Byron): quautbyrongeorgex020.htm

An image of this painting may be viewed at

Mark Harden:

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