The Death of Sardanapalus

Sardanapalus – The Man Behind the Painting #wwwblogs

eugene-delacroix-the-death-of-sardanapalus-1827

My current WIP involves three different centuries and was inspired by a painting by Eugene Delacroix. The painting ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ portrays a man watching as his possessions (including concubines, slaves and animals) are destroyed around him. The painting is lavish and in some ways shocking. So just who was Sardanapalus and why did he allow this to happen?

One of the problems with trying to write about such an ancient subject is the lack of information. But I have been able to find out a surprising amount – how much is accurate, how much actually happened, is, of course, debatable, but as with all historical research, you can only learn from what’s there, keeping an open but questioning mind.

According to the Greek writer Ctesias of Cnidus (I’d be really interested to know how to pronounce that!) Sardanapalus was the last king of Assyria. Already though, it’s not that simple. The last king of Assyria was actually Ashur-Uballit II. Ctesias was a physician and historian. He wrote a series of books about the history of Assyria and Persia called ‘Persica’. Unfortunately, the books are lost. There are fragments included in other books and abridgements, but not the originals. In the account written by Diodorus, a Greek historian writing in about 30 to 60 BC. who used Ctesias as a source, we get an idea of Sardanapalus as he is later known – a decadent man, self-indulgent, concerned mainly with physical gratification.

Diodoro_siculo_-_storico_di_Agira

Diodorus

The name Sardanapalus is most likely a corruption of the name Ashurbanipal, the last king of the Neo Assyrian Empire. However, Ashurbanipal was, by all accounts, completely different to Sardanapalus; he was a scholar, a military man, powerful and efficient. The similarities seem to lie in the fact that Ashurbanipal fell out with his brother, as does Sardanapalus in Diodorus’ account, and it is this brother’s death that bears a passing resemblance to Sardanapalus’ fate. However, nether Ashurbanipal or his brother led the type of life that Sardanapalus is associated with. Confused yet?

Delacroix was apparently not inspired by either Ctesias or Diodorus though. He took his inspriarion from the play by Lord Byron, who was inspired by Diodorus. So by the time we get to Delacroix’s painting, we are seeing something inspired by a play inspired by a Greek historian writing hundreds of years before, who was inspired by a Greek physician and historian writing about three to four hundred years before that. It’s not really surprising that things might not be completely historically accurate but we are left with this enduring idea of a lascivious, decadent, self-indulgent man who lived for pleasure.

byron play

It is this that is depicted so well and so shockingly by Delacroix – the moment when, his city besieged, Sardanapalus has everything he owns made into a huge pyre, and awaits the moment when all will be set alight, including him. It is his expression, his apparent lack of concern that really stays with you.

Of course, the painting didn’t go down too well at the time. The violence, the nudity, the actual style of the painting itself and the techniques used brought Delacroix much criticism. It was only in later years that the painting became valued for its boldness and its bravery.

 

New work in progress – ‘Chiaroscuro’ #wwwblogs

I’ve finally completed the research (as far as I can) and have at last put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard, anyway) and begun my second full-length novel. All through the research, I kept myself on track by writing regular blog posts, something that I’m going to continue to do during the actual writing. Hopefully the posts will be interesting to others, as well as giving me a focus!

The idea for this novel has been in my mind for a very long time. Almost ten years ago I was studying for a degree with the Open University. One of the modules included a study of Eugene Delacroix, the nineteenth century French romantic painter, and involved an analysis of his paintings, including The Death of Sardanapalus’.

sardanapalus
Delacroix’s painting fascinated me. It’s so vibrant, the colours are so vivid; there’s so much detail, so much going on. Sardanapalus, an Assyrian king, watches dispassionately as everything he owns, including animals, slaves and concubines, are destroyed. His kingdom is under siege and he would rather everything was obliterated than left to the invaders.

This got me thinking. About Sardanapalus, about his concubines, about the man who painted it all. What stories lay behind the women who were Sardanapalus’ slaves? And what about Delacroix himself, his life, his art? And the models he used? What would it be like to work with an artist like him? These ideas were all jumbled together and have remained so for the last ten years or so. Somehow, I’ve managed to put them all together in a storyline that covers three different eras, three very different women and three very different men. The novel will range from the sixth century BC to nineteenth century France and into 21st century England.

Why the title ‘Chiaroscuro’?

Chiaroscuro is the Italian for ‘light-dark’. In art it refers to strong contrasts between light and dark. Delacroix was known as a master of colour, and he took this contrast to extremes, bringing a sophistication to the technique. In ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’, he uses contrasts of light, of shadow, halftones and bold brushstrokes to create vibrancy, a sense of life and movement in the face of death. I hope to carry this theme through the novel, into the lives of my characters; the lights and darks of their worlds, their relationships, the events that shape them. It’s a bit daunting, but at least I’ve finally made a start.

Eugene Delacroix and the lost art of letter writing

Eugene Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix

Researching my new WIP, I’ve been reading the selected letters of Eugène Delacroix.

Delacroix was a rather controversial 19th Century artist. His painting invoked strong reactions for their use of bold colour and for his refusal to conform to the ideas of the day. I think that’s why I like him so much. He’s pretty hard to research however, despite the fact that he is regarded as the father of the French Romantic movement.

These letters then are indispensable and a godsend. They are also entertaining, intelligent, beautifully written (and translated) and hugely insightful. Without them, I would be at rather a loss to put any flesh on the bones of the man whose paintings I so admire.

The letters that are relevant to the period I am researching, when Delacroix was a young man, are written to friends and family. They contain within them clues to Delacroix’s passions, his values, his admiration for his close friends and hints of the rather strained relationship he had with his sister. But what if Delacroix was alive today? How would I find out what makes him tick?

Well, you could argue that it would be a lot easier. That I would just have to look at his Twitter account or Google him to find out the latest gossip, or read interviews in magazines or on websites. But would that give me a true picture? I somehow doubt it. Here, in these personal letters, we have something precious – a real insight into a man that many consider a genius. For today’s artists, musicians, actors and celebrities, what we usually get is a PR approved, carefully constructed, watered-down version of a personality, a life that the artist (or their management company) wants you to see. Yes, we might get to read an autobiography (but this would be run through the usual PR checks), we might read on Twitter what they had for breakfast, but is that a real insight?

And it’s not just in the area of celebrity that something has been lost. The art of writing letters is lost to us on the whole. We write quick emails, tweet or text each other. We don’t sit down and write to each other about our feelings, our ambitions, our desires and our disappointments as Delacroix did. Even our moments of the greatest grief or the greatest joy are now more often posted on Facebook. I’ve seen people ‘share’ the loss of a parent in a post and the response has been a range of sad emoticons. That takes a few seconds. Compare that to Delacroix’s letter to his great friend J.B. Pierret, written after the death of Perret’s father. The letter is awash with empathy, with sympathy, with real feeling, real concern and real emotion. How much more comfort would that give than a ‘sad face’?

I’m not one of those people who think that everything was better in the past – far from it. But I do think in this age where everything is quick, everything is automated, our responses have become automated too. And I do think we’re the poorer for that.