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Eugène Delacroix’s 1826 The Death of Sardanapalus

By Gabriela Kennedy


September 19, 2018 | Arts and Culture


The story of Sardanapalus is one of a luxurious, effeminate king whose people turn on him for neglecting them. Not wanting to go down without a fight, he resolves to destroying not only himself but every object in which he finds pleasure. This is an interesting way to study the painting when looking at it from a feminist perspective, since the women pictured are inherently viewed and treated as objects. He equates their worth to that of his treasures and ornaments, easily acquired and also destroyed. The women he is involved with are toys to him and if he can no longer play with them, no one can. In the painting, he sits nonchalantly watching over the women screaming and writhing in pain as they are killed, he is exercising his ultimate misogynistic power over them, holding their life in his hands and killing them because they are no longer of use to him. He sees them as void of humanity and unworthy of any  human dignity, he has no problem in murdering them since, to him, they are nothing but objects, replaceable and, in the end, useless for any means other than physical.

The objectification of women and their bodies as tools used solely for the pleasure of men in society is the root of misogynistic thinking and thus behaviour like that of Sardanapalus illustrated in this painting. The overwhelming sense of ownership over women’s bodies on behalf of men is deeply rooted in the belief that the best way to strategically keep women out of power is to continuously sodomize them and put them in places where their body becomes their sole asset and currency, reducing their entire existence to that of physical use and removing from them any form of identity or self-worth.

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