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2.2 Sardanapalus – subject and composition

The following explanatory text was published in the booklet accompanying the paintings at the 1827–8 Salon, where Delacroix’s canvas was exhibited:

Death of Sardanapalus. The rebels besieged him in his palace … Lying on a superb bed, atop an immense pyre, Sardanapalus orders his eunuchs and palace officers to slit the throats of his women, his pages, and even his horses and favourite dogs; none of the objects that served his pleasure should survive him … Aisheh, a Bactrian woman, couldn’t bear that a slave should kill her and hung herself from the columns supporting the vault … Baleah, Sardanapalus’s cupbearer, finally set fire to the pyre and threw himself in.

(Quoted in Johnson, 1981, pp.114–15; trans. Walsh)

Aisheh is in the centre of the top of the painting; Baleah is in the centre of the painting’s right-hand edge, accompanied by a figure holding his hand to his head. He is signalling to Sardanapalus that, as the rebels have gained ground, the order to set fire to the palace has already been given. We can see flames in the background. Sardanapalus himself reclines on his bed, in the top left-hand corner, gazing in Baleah’s direction. The diagonal between him and Baleah divides the painting into two sections, each full of incident. To the right of the bed, as Aisheh hangs herself, a slave is preparing to kill a woman lower down. To the left of the bed, we see a woman carrying poison in a jewel-encrusted jug; other figures kill themselves, are convulsed by fear or lie dying. In the right foreground a nude woman is having her throat slit and in the bottom left-hand corner a black slave is killing a horse.