Curator’s Choice: the hallmarks of excess in a dramatic scene painted by Delacroix

Christopher Riopelle interviewed by Mark Sheerin | 01 March 2016

Christopher Riopelle, National Gallery Curator of Post-1800 Painting, talks to Culture24 about a highlight of the current show Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art.

Classical oil painting of a scene of destruction all around the bed of a reclining emperor
Eugène Delacroix The Death of Sardanapalus (reduced replica), 1846© Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986 (1986-26-17)
“Well, so why don't we do The Death of Sardanapalus. This is the later version of the Delacroix painting of1827 that caused such extraordinary scandal when it was first shown.

And what it shows is a scene of the emperor spread out on his bed. His city is under siege and is virtually destroyed. And he decrees that all of his ownings, including his horses, his treasures, his harem be destroyed around him. And so it is an extraordinary image of, if you will, universal destruction. One of the reasons this painting was so controversial, when it was first shown, was simply for its unbridled excess.

(It’s clear that the horse, particularly the Arabian stallions. even before he’d ever been to Africa, epitomised for Delacroix: wildness, freedom, intensity. So yes he uses them over and over again.)

What's interesting about the version in our show is this: he could never sell the picture for years and years until, 20 years after he painted it, he finally sold it to a British collector; but he knew it was so important to his career, this enormous picture. So he painted this second version, a smaller replica, which is now in the Philladelphia Museum of Art and is coming to the exhibition at the National Gallery. Because he realised, he had to keep this image with him and he always did up to his death.

And so what he did there was to accentuate all of the things people most disliked in 1827. He accentuated them, in this later replica. So it's an absolutely fascinating record of Delacroix's mind at work and his willingness or fascination with always pushing further with his most extravagant inventions.

Many of his early works were on very dramatic very passionate themes and subjects. That was certainly true with the pictures emerging from his visit to North Africa as well. And he was rather famous as the artist of excess in certain ways. And that early fervour was something he wanted to keep going.

I think that he was one of the first who understood how publicity, whether positive or negative, could advance your career simply by keeping your name in front of the public. And while the Sardanapalus brought in huge criticisms, he realised that it had served a purpose by keeping his name in front of the public.

Compared with other things, there were not all that many preparatory drawings. And it’s a very odd composition; the space is very odd. You’re almost looking at a bed at an oblique angle and it’s filling up the canvas. It has that sense of being an improvisation. He wasn't going to worry about the proper rules of perspective or anything else, as he was pushing it forward.

I love it for the extravagance of the use of paint, and I find the sense of invention in it, the sense that (even though we know it took a long time to paint) it's like an improvisation. The spontaneity with which he lays on the paint is pretty beguiling.

I don't know if I’d say it has a message for our time. But it is a painting that certainly pushes a lot of unexpected buttons, right at this moment. It's pretty hard to take in some ways.”

Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art can be seen at the National Gallery, London, until May 22 2016
  • Admission £16 (£8). Open daily 10am-6pm (until 9pm Friday)
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