The Louvre: legendary figures

Paintings are often elegantly framed windows to ancient legends unwritten in modern textbooks. Classical artists tended to derive their inspirations from other medium of art (i.e. play) that tells most dramatic episodes from ancient kingdoms. Some of them interpret the classical episode from a slight varied angle relevant to the contemporary political and social issues.

“The Death of Sardanaplaus (1827)” is now known as Eugene Delacroix’s most brilliant work but was also most controversial when it was first exhibited in 1827. It depicts the horrendous last moments of Sardanapalus, the King of Nineveh in Assyria, who ordered to massacre everything he owned before killing himself to the military defeat. The mighty red flows from the bed in which Sardanapalus was enthroned, as to suggest the slaughter in which a single drop of blood is barely seen. The French translation of Lord Byron’s play Sardanapalus (1821) was the source of inspiration for this epic painting.

“The Oath of the Horatii (1784)”by Jacques-Louis David. The subject is based on the historical battle between Rome and Alba Longa (672-640 BCE), but the particular episode depicted in this painting is not recorded in any of the historical sources. Three Horatus brothers on the left are handed their swords by their father and swearing to fight to the end. Wives are mourning on the right as if foreseeing the tragic deaths of their husbands. It’s likely that David was inspired from Pierre Corneille’s popular play Horace (1640).

“The Sabines (1799)” by Jacques-Louis David. The rape of the Sabine women was already a famous episode from the legendary history of Rome in which the male followers of Romulus abducted women from neighbouring Sabine in order to found families of their own. David depicted a Sabine woman intervening between the warring men in order to address the themes of ‘love’ and ‘peace’ amidst the tumults of the Revolution.

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