Listening to Art

05.07: Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus


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Listening to Art, by William Denton.

Volume five, number seven: The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix.

Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.

This is the first of four issues devoted to the great French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix, who lived from 1798 to 1863. For each I have a quote from his wonderful Journal, a personal diary he kept for a few years in the 1820s and then again from 1847 to his death. I will use the Phaidon Press edition, edited by Hubert Wellington and beautifully translated by Lucy Norton.

Here is part of the entry from 12 October 1852, after a mention of an aging actor Delacroix had seen in a play:

If a man who has been a bad or at best a second-rate actor all his life—or at any rate during his youth, the age of his strength and passion—can become passable or even excellent when he has neither teeth nor breath left, shall not the same be true for the other arts? Do I not write better now than I used to do? These days, no sooner do I take up my pen than ideas come flocking into my mind just as before; not only that, but sequence and proportion, those matters which I used to have such difficulty with in the past, come to me quite naturally and at the time when I am thinking out what I want to say.

Surely it must be the same with painting. Otherwise, why is it that nowadays I never know a moment’s boredom when I have a brush in my hand, and feel that if only I had enough strength I should never stop painting, except to eat and sleep? I remember that in the past, at the age when an artist’s enthusiasm and imaginative powers are supposed to be at their height, I lacked the experience to profit by these fine qualities and was halted at every step and often discouraged. Nature plays a bad joke on us when she places us in this situation as we begin to grow old. We become completely mature, our imagination is as fresh and active as ever, especially now that age has stilled the mad, impetuous passions of our youth, but we no longer have the same strength; our senses begin to wear out and are more in need of rest than activity. Yet, with all these drawbacks, what consolation we derive from work. I feel so thankful not to have to seek for happiness, as I used to understand the word. What tyranny this weakness of my body has delivered me from! Painting used to be the least of my preoccupations. Therefore we must do the best we can, and if nature refuses to allow us to work for more than a certain length of time we must not ill-treat her, but be thankful for what she still leaves us. We must be less eager in the pursuit of praises that are as empty as the wind, and enjoy work for its own sake, and for those delightful hours when we have the deep satisfaction of realizing that our rest has been earned by a healthy tiredness that keeps our souls in good repair. This in turn affects the body and prevents the rust of years from tarnishing the nobler sentiments.

The Death of Sardanapalus was done twenty-five years earlier, in 1827, when Delacroix turned twenty-nine. It was shown in Paris at the Salon of 1828 and received poorly. As Barthélémy Jobert says in his biography Delacroix (p. 83): “There was a general panning in which even the artist’s partisans participated, criticizing him quite harshly.”

This is a painting, oil on canvas, 496 cm wide by 392 cm high.

Now let’s listen to The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix, recorded at the Louvre, in Paris, on 18 July 2019.

Waveform of the field recording.

That was The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.

For more information and links to things I’ve mentioned, please visit listeningtoart.org.

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Bibliography

All web sites accessed as of date of publication.

Delacroix, Eugène. The Journal of Eugène Delacroix. 3rd ed. Edited by Hubert Wellington. Translated by Lucy Norton. London: Phaidon Press, 2001.

Jobert, Barthélémy. Delacroix. Translated by Terry Grabar and Alexandra Bonfante-Warren. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.`

Musée du Louvre. “Mort de Sardanapale.” Site officiel du musée du Louvre. http://cartelfr.louvre.fr/cartelfr/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=22747&langue=fr.

Wikipedia, s.v. “The Death of Sardanapalus,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_of_Sardanapalus.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Eugène Delacroix,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugène_Delacroix.