by Alexandra Tuschka
Delacroix - a painter with a preference for oriental motifs - chose a violent scene for this painting to have it exhibited at the Paris Salon. It was rejected - the subject seemed too bloodthirsty to the contemporary public.
The scene shows a fictional character - Sardanapel, the king of Assyria shortly before his death. Sardanapel led an immoderate life full of luxury and wealth. He was besieged by the Medes for two years, but defended his kingdom to the last. When he realized that he had to surrender, he ordered his servants to destroy all wealth. Before killing himself with poison, he crammed himself, his treasures and his retinue into a room that was finally set on fire. The ashes of his favorite wife Myrrha were thus to mix with his own. The inferno lasted for 15 days.
Sardanapel lies elevated on a magnificent bed. He watches the killing around him motionless. He is surrounded by grand and affecting gestures: men stabbing resolutely, naked concubines slumping. Typical of Delacroix, the women are shown as victims at the mercy of the men. Pure fear is expressed in the man who rushes into the picture on the right, also by the Arabian horse, which instinctively refuses to approach. The only person as motionless as the king is in the upper left edge of the picture. It is the cupbearer, who even in this situation reverently brings his master a richly decorated vessel. It is the poison with which Sardanapel will kill himself.
Eugène Delacroix - The Death of Sardanapel
Oil on canvas, 1827, 392 × 496 cm, Musée du Louvre in Paris