Delacroix’s painting, Le Mort de Sardanapalus was exhibited in the Salon of le Musee de Louvre in 1827. A narrative painting, it is a dramatic portrayal of the death of King Sardanapulus, inspired by Lord Byron’s dramatic play ‘Sardanapulus’, of 1821, portraying the life of an Assyrian King. As a prominent figure within the French Romanticist movement, Delacroix effectively combines romanticism with Orientalism as he depicts the Orient as lavish, exotic and opulent. Le Mort de Sardanapalus belongs to a cycle of Orientalist works of art by Delacroix, after his curiosity with the Orient led him to visit Morocco in 1832, which undoubtedly had a lasting impact on his art. However, Delacroix’s painting was met with a somewhat hostile reception; indeed it went unsold and ‘he provoked heated responses from government officials surely sensitised to the theme of absolutism gone wild’. The painting remained unsold until 1946, when it was bought by a banker, John Wilson. Delacroix was viewed as overstepping the boundaries of proper decorum. His work was not seen as the outcome of creative integrity or originality, but as exemplary of his “hotheaded temperament” (Jobert 81)
The painting provoked a strong reaction due to the excessive nature of the subject and manner in which it was painted: in effect a ‘delirious orgy which played on Byronic notions and Faustian concoctions of creative and destructive energies.’
Jobert said in 1998 (page 83) “the first rules of art seem to have deliberately violated”. It is unquestionably a product of Delacroix’s biased yet fantastical view of the Orient as he attempts to reaffirm Orientalist notions already established in society.
‘Le Mort de Sardanapulus’ draws on the legend of the Assyrian king (said to have died in 876 BC) whose city, palace and prize possessions were under attack by his rebellious subjects. At the point of his death, the king orders all of his possessions, palace and lover ‘Myrrha’ to be destroyed as a final wish. Delacroix’s interpretation of the legend is somewhat exaggerated, in particular to Lord Byron’s version of the tale. Not only does Delacroix present a fantastical interpretation of a newly adventured land, the Orient, but he also depicts a male misogynistic interpretation of it, which has been argued is an ‘extension of an obsession with his own sexual desires.’ Linda Nochlin. Delacroix’s intrigue with the Orient provided a perfect canvas onto which he projected his longing and desire.
The painting consists of the Assyrian King reclining in his bed, surrounded by slaves and women, as well as his prized possessions as he seemingly relishes his final moments. MORE.
Orientalism plays a major role within the painting. It was part of an art and literary form inspired by non-western cultures; it was a Western construct which ‘helped to define Europe as its contrasting image, idea, personality and experience’. Within the painting, Delacroix effectively portrays the themes of misogyny, violence and exoticism.
The theatrical use of light and shade within the composition highlights the theme of misogyny as it draws the spectator to the vulnerability of the women of Sardanapulus. The Orient was depicted as an eroticised, misogynistic part of the world, where women were objects of desire, from the view of male European artists, such as Delacroix and Ingres. The diagonal composition of the painting stems from Sardanapulus’ corrupt gaze into the foreground, leading the viewer’s eyes towards a woman being brutally murdered before our eyes. The positioning of the naked woman below the bed in the foreground builds on the idea that women are vulnerable and unprotected at the hands of male figures in the Orient. Their sensual serpentine-shaped bodies stretching up towards Sardanapulus further suggests they are merely objects of desire, and denotes the inferiority women are subjected to in the Orient; they are stripped of their dignity to placate Sardanapulus’ wishes.
The spectator is naturally drawn towards the centre of the painting, towards the king and his lover, Myrrha, who lies at the king’s feet, naked, with her head and body outstretched. The brightness of the central scene is balanced by the bottom left corner with the dark skin of the black slave and the grey tone of the horse, emphasizing the women, and brutality posed against them. The positioning of his lover at his feet plays on Delacroix’s theme of misogyny and the emphasis of light on her body is juxtaposed with the shadows that Sardanapulus lies in. By this, Sardanapulus is depicted as an evil figure of masculinity and dominance over female objects of his desire demonstrating the indulgent nature of Sardanapalus’ reign while Delacroix presents powerless nude women against a clothed, powerful man and therefore the gendering of the painting is achieved. The typically Oriental rouge colour of the bed, to which his lover clings on to, furthermore denotes the voyeurism of female figures in the East, as it creates a feeling of sensuality in the painting. Delacroix’s representation of the female form is subjected to the masculine, phallic dominance, as he contours the musculature of the male figures, submitting the entire scene to male ascendency. They are his personal sexual objects that can be taken in or disposed of as he chooses
The savage chaos of the scene infers the very despotic nature of the king that Delacroix seeks to convey, by using violent imagery and a disorderly composition, underlining the theme of violence. Delacroix’s painting offers no clear recession into depth, in that the vague contouring of the figures prevents any such scale or perspective. For example, Sardanapulus’ head seems diminutive in comparison to the female figures in the foreground and Sardanapalus’ death bed seems to hover in the centre of the painting without any clear relationship to the angle of the walls surrounding it. Sardanapalus’ unaffected gaze produces a striking juxtaposition with the audience’s horrified reaction. The double layer of perspective creates a tension within the painting, as Sardanapulus’ perspective watching the scene unfold is entirely different to that of the viewer, who looks on in horror. *compare to massacre de mamelouks*Delacroix abandons traditional notions, concerning form in this painting, adapting his own personal style. The lack of control within the painting, conveyed by the broken up outlines and roughened contours is somewhat reminiscent of Delacroix’s fantasy of the Orient and how he wanted it to be depicted as a crazed, chaotic place. The sense of violence, confusion and savage chaos are invoked by the shocking imagery of the painting. Not only are we faced with the expression on the horse’s face of terror, but the delicate bodies of three concubines, who have or are being slaughtered. Such violent imagery caused critics to view Delacroix as overstepping the boundaries of proper decorum in the 20th century world of art. The unstructured composition of the painting such as rough contouring and broad brushstrokes points to the shared view that the painting was produced through an emotional reaction to the original poem of Lord Byron rather than a careful masterpiece of work sticking to painterly guidelines, as Delacroix seemingly attempts to portray an even more evil and perverse picture of the Orient. Moreover, Delacroix fails to leave a single blank space throughout the painting, creating a heavily detailed, chaotic painting, while the off-balance perspective contributes to a feeling of unease and perhaps leads the audience to experience a feeling of being in a fantastical dream; and therefore one is more easily affected by the horror depicted and more convinced of the negative reality of the Orient.
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