Imbued with suggestive mystery, Le sacrifice d'Iphigénie is a testament to the enduring importance of classical antiquity to Delvaux's surrealistic idiom. Greek and Roman elements appear consistently throughout his oeuvre, but his fascination with mythological narratives is particularly present in canvases from the late 1960s such as Le rendez-vous d'Ephàse (1967), and the present work, which treats the subject of Iphigenia's sacrifice at Aulis before the Trojan War. Here, Delvaux balances ambiguous symbolism with a set narrative, reflecting the painter's openness to various artistic influences and his selective affiliation with surrealism. Commenting on this phenomenon, Z. Barthelman and J. Van Deun have stated: "Unlike the Surrealists, Delvaux never forced himself to probe his unconscious through automatic writing, hypnotic dreams, or other surrealist experiences. Further, unlike artist such as Miró, Dali and Magritte, Delvaux draws upon elements that came directly from reality, both past and present" (Paul Delvaux: Odyssey of a Dream, Saint-Idesbald, 2007, pp. 28-9).
Though it contains no overtly classical elements, the present work expertly captures the psychic tension within the story of Iphigenia's impending ritual sacrifice by her father Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek fleet, to appease the goddess Artemis and procure the necessary wind for his ships to lay siege on Troy. In some versions of the myth, Agamemnon kills Iphigenia, and in others, Artemis spares her by substituting a deer at the last minute. Indeed, the fate of the main figure, one of Delvaux's ubiquitous doe-eyed blondes, is uncertain. She sits passively, perhaps contemplating her fate. She is one of four mannequin-like women, three of which occupy a dimly lit interior that looks out onto a river and the dark cityscape on the opposite shore. A dark-haired woman in a blue evening gown, perhaps an allusion to Iphigenia's mother, Clytemnestra, ministers to doomed woman; her lacy white dress recalls the false promise of marriage to the hero Achilles that lured mother and daughter to Aulis. An identical blonde figure in a light blue shift stands to the left of the canvas, her hands slightly raised in surprise. Her bare feet and position on a small scarlet rug separate her from the other women, signaling a split self that is at once aware of her situation and dissociated. Similarly, the supine female figure with one exposed breast on the outdoor porch-like space lies at the feet of a calm, tuxedoed man, providing a vision of Iphigenia's impending murder.
Delvaux's use of and architectural divisions as a metaphor for the psychic and narrative structure of the present canvas also reveals the influence of Giorgio de Chirico, whose surrealist works he had seen in an exhibition in the early 1930s. However, the architecture in the present work departs from the classical columns and arcades that customarily attend both painters' canvases. Instead, the view resembles a northern European cityscape reminiscent of Vermeer's View of Delft, 1660-1661 (Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis, The Hague), with the addition of a freight train on the embankment. Nonetheless, like de Chirico, Delvaux cultivates unease by creating an illogical, stage-like structure with odd perspective lines that, together with the stillness of the figures, gives the work an appearance of a staged drama caught mid-performance. Like the nocturnal environment, the cramped, angular room adds to the seated woman's sense of vulnerability and the sacrifice that will attend the coming dawn.