Contrasting the unreasonable

“I dislike reasonable painting.” This quote from Eugéne Delacroix’s diary is made quite clear in the artist’s works. I was particularly struck by the violence and sense of contrast his works “The Death of Sardanapalus” (1827) and “The Murder of the Bishop of Liège” (1829). In a sense, neither are “reasonable” paintings.

“The Death of Sardanapalus” depicts the death of the Assyrian king by the same name. Byron wrote a play on the event, and only hinted at the violent destruction of all of Sardanapalus’s worldly possessions that Delacroix chooses to depict.

Delacroix’s use of chiaroscuro in “Sardanapalus” is particularly striking. While mayhem occurs all around the disturbingly calm, reclining Sardanapalus, Delacroix places the focus on Myrrha, the king’s favorite concubine. She, besides the king, seems to be the only still image. Focusing only on this lit part of the painting, Myrrha does not seem caught in the death surrounding her, but in a pose of quiet devotion.

But, placed in the context of the scene, it is a deadly devotion. This is contrasted by the maid/concubine in the lower right hand corner, her skin also illuminated a snow-white, being forcefully killed as opposed to Myrrha’s dutiful death.

Another painting by Delacroix, similar in it’s use of chiaroscuro and violence is “The Murder of the Bishop of Liège.”

Also an image from literature (Walter Scott’s novel Quentin Durward), the painting depicts the people of Liège murdering the Bishop of Liège, Louis de Bourbon. The people are led by William de la Marck, who is seated on the pontifical throne, ordering the bishop’s death.

Again, Delacroix employs masterful contrast. Instead of holy orders coming from the throne, murderous treachery comes from the enthroned mouth. The nature of the treachery (the traitor is not well-lit) is shown by what is lit by Delacroix’s use of chiaroscuro: the bishop and the table. Delacroix seems to be suggesting that la Marck is betraying the holy authority of the bishop (his miter and crozier are being stripped of him), the right of man to live (for they not only kill a bishop but, as accented by his lack of miter and crozier, they kill a man), and finally the laws of hospitality. The table, which seems to light all those around it more than the lanterns, seems to rebel and shine against la Marck’s order. This hearkens both the classical laws of hospitality as well as the great woe of Christians, having dined at the Eucharist table together, would rise against one another.


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