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In this free course, Delacroix, you will be introduced to a variety of Delacroix's work and will see how his paintings relate to the cultural transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism. You will study Delacroix's early career, his classical background, the development of Romantic ideas and their incorporation into his work. You will have the opportunity to study some of his most important paintings and compare them to works favouring a Neoclassical approach. You will also be able to see how his themes, subjects and style were influenced by Romantic ideas, the exotic and the Oriental. Through this you will develop an understanding of the classicRomantic balance that shows how his work was influenced by cultural change of that period and to some extent contributed to the progression from Enlightenment to Romanticism.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • identify those aspects of Delacroix’s art that qualify it as ‘Romantic’
  • understand the interplay between classicism and Romanticism in Delacroix’s art
  • appreciate the nature of Delacroix’s fascination with the Oriental and the exotic even before he visited Morocco.

By: The Open University

  • Duration 16 hours
  • Updated Thursday 14th April 2016
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under History of Art
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2 The Death of Sardanapalus

2.1 Inspiration for the Death of Sardanapalus

Plate 1 is a reproduction of Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus, believed to have been completed sometime between November 1827 and January 1828.

Click to see Plate 1: Eugène Delacroix,The Death of Sardanapalus [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

It draws on a legend, fabricated in the Persika by the Greek writer Ksetias (fourth century BCE), that had already featured in a play by Byron entitled Sardanapalus, published in 1821. It concerns an Assyrian ruler whose palace was threatened by his rebellious subjects. Sardanapalus, descendant of Semiramis, was the last king of Nineveh, a city roughly halfway between the Mediterranean and the Caspian Sea in present-day Iraq. According to the legend, he died in 876 BCE. In order to avoid the humiliation of defeat by his subjects (a theme that would have evoked, in Delacroix’s era, the revolutionary mob), he ordered himself, his palace and all his prized possessions (including his favourite concubine, Myrrha) to be burned and destroyed. In Delacroix’s version, unlike Byron’s, Sardanapalus meets his fate not just with Myrrha, but with an entire roomful of concubines and slaves. Delacroix probably drew on a number of sources in the visualisation of this incident. Apart from Byron, it’s thought that he was also influenced by the Greek historian Diodorus (first century CE), the Roman historian Quintus Curtius (also first century CE) and possibly an engraving of a pseudo-Etruscan relief of the incident (see Johnson, 1981, pp.117–18). It has also been suggested (see Lambertson, 2002) that the conception and iconography of Delacroix’s painting might have been inspired by similar work by Charles-Émile Champmartin, an artist with whom Delacroix was acquainted. Champmartin had visited the Near East and in 1828 completed a large-scale Oriental massacre scene, Massacre of the Janissaries: see Plate 2.

Click to see Plate 2: Charles-Émile Champmartin, Massacre of the Janissaries

However, the uncommissioned Sardanapalus was probably, above all, a product of Delacroix’s fancy. Archaeological accuracy was certainly not possible as Nineveh had not yet been excavated.

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