Happy birthday to Eugène Delacroix! When Delacroix showed his huge painting inspired by Lord Byron’s play “Sardanapalus” in the Paris Salon of 1827–28, he changed the history of art. With this painting, the splendor and opulence of Baroque painting returned full force, putting to question all the restraint and clarity that had been revered as classical truths. It marked the coming of age of Romanticism and launched the thirty-year-old Parisian’s meteoric career.
For all its notoriety, Delacroix’s painting, now in the Louvre in Paris, was not sold until 1846 when, art historians think, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s picture of the same subject was done as a smaller, quickly worked reprise. The artist’s obvious pleasure in mixing color and relaying drama remains undiminished in the copy, as Delacroix records the last moments of the Assyrian king. As Sardanapalus’s palace is besieged, he reclines on a sumptuous bed atop an immense pyre that will soon be set aflame, and he orders the slaughter of all his women, his attendants, and even his horses and dogs, so that no objects of his pleasure would outlive him.
“The Death of Sardanapalus,” 1844, by Eugène Delacroix