This painting gave Delacroix a chance to depict in a remote place and time the sort of physical and emotional violence that so fascinated many painters of this age. Sardanapalus, an Assyrian ruler of the seventh century BCE, held out against his besieging enemies for two years before his palace fell. Delacroix depicted the last moments of Sardanapalus, who watches as all his treasures, horses, and concubines are brought together to be burned with him in a defiant act of self-immolation.
Painting under the influence of Rubens, Delacroix created a wild scene of writhing struggle and death. The strong crescendo of expansive forms, reminiscent of Gèricault's Raft of Medusa, gives the painting visual excitement and power. Delacroix dwelled on the various episodes of cruelty performed in this exotic Levantine palace, especially the murdered women, whose bodies reveal Delacroix's remarkable ability to paint glowing, lambent flesh.
The opulent colour animates the painting and helps create the action-filled drama. Deep reds, golds, and the ubiquitous flesh colours are spread over the surface of the canvas in masterful inter-relationships. The smoke of the battle, the smouldering colours, and the expansive bodies seem to swirl around the brooding Sardinapalus, who watches the final manifestation of his will from his couch.