Art, Who was/is


Cleopatra is one of the best-known women who had an important role in history. She is famous for being the queen of Egypt, for her relationship with two military generals of Roman Empire and for dying from an asp bite. Her story was told in books, films, ballets and in many paintings.

Cleopatra VII Philopator was the last active ruler of the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty, she was a descendant of its founder, Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian Greek general and companion of Alexander the Great.

Just few people know that she was a well-educated woman, she could spoke as a dozen languages (she was the first of Ptolemaic dynasty to learn Egyptian language) and she received proper education in mathematics, philosophy, oratory and astronomy. She was later described as “the ruler who elevated the rank of scholars and enjoyed their company”.   She was also a diplomat, naval commander and medical author.

Following the tradition of Macedonian rulers, Cleopatra ruled Egypt and other territories such as Cyprus as an absolute monarch, serving as the sole lawgiver of her kingdom.

After her death Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire, it marked the end of the Hellenistic period that had its start with the reign of Alexander (336-323BC).

In Art History:

Cleopatra has always been seen as an interesting character and has inspired many plays, films, operas, ballets and of course paintings and sculptures. Probably the image that comes to the mind of many people is Elizabeth Tailor as Cleopatra, others may remember Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra. Truth is that Cleopatra has being an inspiration to many artists since ancient time. It is possible to find depictions of her from ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman art, to contemporary art.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

In many of these depictions she appears with an asp, because in the popular believe she let an Egyptian cobra to bite and poison her, nevertheless the cause of her death was never explained by her physician.

The list of artists who were inspired by this strong female character is very extensive and include names as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Delacroix, Waterhouse, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Guido Reni, Gustave Moreau, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Jacob Jordaens, Cabanel, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Rosso Fiorentino, Salvador Dalí, Luca Giordano, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dick.

And according to my research many women artists were interested in Cleopatra’s story too, as Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabetta Sirani and Edmonia Lewis, Lavinia Fontana, Margaret Foley, Angelica Kauffmann.

I chose only three of them that I found more interesting.

Cleopatra by Gentileschi (c.1620)

It is well-known that Artemisia Gentileschi liked to depict strong and powerful female characters. So, it is not surprising to find a depiction of Cleopatra among her works. Gentileschi chose to depicted the moment of her death, in the painting we can see Cleopatra committing suicide, holding the asp with one hand letting the asp bite her. The painting is now in the Fondazione Cavallini-Sgarbi collection in Ferrara, Italy.

Cleopatra (Gentileschi studio – 1613 or 1621-22)

There is another painting, from the Gentileschi studio, but there are doubts if it is by Artemisia or by her father Orazio. This painting is another depiction of Cleopatra committing suicide, she is laying down with the asp around her arm, after the bite. This painiting now in the private Amedeo Morandotti collection in Milan.

The death of Cleopatra by Edmonia Lewis (1876)

One of the most famous works of Edmonia Lewis is undoubtedly The death of Cleopatra, a beautiful sculpture that is in the Smithonian American Art Museum. It is a monumental marble sculpture (63 x 31 1/4 x 46 in. /160.0 x 79.4 x 116.8 cm) which portrayed the queen in her those of death. Here Lewis didn’t idealized Cleopatra, on the contrary, she offers to us a very realistic perspective; by that time many critics have considered “ghastly” or “absolutely repellent”.

Cleopatra at the tomb of Mark Antony by Angelica Kauffmann (1770)

My favourite of all is Angelica Kauffmann’s painting, because unlike the other didn’t choose to depict the suicide, she chose to show us another moment of Cleopatra’s life, when she is decorating the tomb of Mark Antony. Even though it is curious to see that Kauffmann shows us Cleopatra fully clothed, while Gentileschi (who is from a period before Kauffmann) was bolder in this aspect, presenting a naked female body in both paintings.