Why we might have misread Delacroix’s most famous painting
On the artist's birthday, we reassess this great work, via Judy Sund's new book Exotic: A Fetish for the Foreign
The king in Eugène Delacroix’s painting, The Death of Sardanapalus, isn’t an admirable head of state. As Judy Sund puts it in her book, Exotic: A Fetish for the Foreign, the ancient Assyrian ruler was presented, as “a lazy voluptuary who commits suicide with his favourite Greek concubine, Myrrah, rather than defend his kingdom. Delacroix shows him reclining on an elephantine bed with Myrrah dead at his feet. Lesser concubines – both dark and creamy-skinned – are murdered under his blank gaze. Sardanapalus wears a jewelled turban and a ring on every toe, his love of luxury further evidenced by the slew of objects spilling from the overstuffed scene.”
The picture offended contemporary gallery goers, when it was first shown in 1827, for its near grotesque levels of indulgence; in this way it is viewed, as a key work within Romanticism. However, Sund suggests that Delacroix, who was born on this day, 26 April, in 1798, far from being a patriotic Frenchman, delighting in his nation’s relatively recent triumph over the Ottoman empire, may have actually admired men such as the one in the painting.
“The composition’s irrationality and excess convey those of the stereotypical Eastern ruler, but it is hard to read Delacroix’s painting as an unequivocal condemnation of the despot whose glimmering possessions are offered as visual delights,” writes Sund. “With Sardanapalus, Delacroix established his reputation as a renegade drawn to exotic realms and the eccentric types, intemperate acts and unrestrained sensuousness associated with them.”
What’s more, Delacroix didn’t just dream about the Islamic world; he also visited it. “In 1832, he joined a French diplomatic mission to Morocco and spent six months in North Africa, feeling ‘like a man in a dream, seeing things he’s afraid will escape him’,” Sund writes. “It was not until the end of his stay that he managed to sketch the harem of a private home while seated beyond its door; his impressions inspired Women of Algiers, the image of a shadowy room where richly dressed but barefoot women sit torpidly before a hookah.
Accustomed to exoticist descriptions of handkerchief-throwing and lesbian intrigues, many viewers found Delacroix’s reality-based harem scene anticlimactic, attributing its figures’ vacant expressions to the monotony of the concubine’s existence.”
Though Delacroix did return to less accurate flights of oriental fantasy in his later years, he remains remarkable as one of the few western artists to have painted a harem memory, rather than fantasy. Maybe we should look on The Death of Sardanapalus as an early work of artistic tolerance and multiculturalism?
For more on western views of foreign lands, buy a copy of Exotic here.