Cleopatra in art and painting: exotic queen and femme fatale
Cleopatra has inspired artists since the Renaissance. On the one hand, she was a great queen, whose attractiveness succumbed to Caesar and Anthony, the two most influential Roman military leaders. On the other hand, her tragic suicide, which deprived the winner of at least part of his triumph. However, ancient authors agree with the fact that Cleopatra was bitten by a snake in her hand. A bite in the chest is an invention of Shakespeare, which was later eagerly picked up by the visual arts.
Guido Reni: The Death of Cleopatra (1625-1630) painting by Guido Reni Maria Magdalene (1635)
Guido Reni shows Cleopatra in the pose of a repentant sinner. For comparison, on the right is his painting “Mary Magdalene” (1635). It depicts the same pose, and the same expression. The difference, besides the obligatory presence of the snake, is only in the lighting that promises to give divine grace to Mary Magdalene. In this case, the historical authenticity of two women, whose appearance and decoration corresponds to the XVII century, is absolutely not important.
Guido Cagnacci: The Death of Cleopatra (1658)
Guido Cagnacci majestically portrayed a naked girl who peacefully passed away, although at the time of Cleopatra’s death she was almost 40 years old. Like many madonnas of that time, Cleopatra and her servants had blond or brown hair, which shows that a foreign / exotic element is of little importance to the artist. It seemed to him rather a good opportunity to show as much naked body as possible, which, of course, was not so easy to do with the saints.
Gerard de Leress: “Feast of Cleopatra” (approx. 1680) and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: “Feast of Cleopatra” (approx. 1744)
Leress and Tiepolo showed Cleopatra as a typical ruler of the Baroque era, who in her palace receives a foreign military commander. Architecture is the most important element that has absolutely nothing to do with a foreign culture or era. In Leress’s case, the “exotic” is limited to Cleopatra’s bare chest, which is significantly influenced by the imagination of his time, as historical reality, and the clothes worn by Anthony. Tiepolo in this case goes even further, his characters are almost completely dressed in modern fashion. Such changes from historical to data arise not so much from the failure of artists as from complete indifference to historical authenticity.
Jean-Baptiste Renaud: “The Death of Cleopatra” (1796/1799)
Especially compared to Tiepolo, it seems that Reno is putting a little more effort into achieving historical accuracy. But this is only at first glance. For comparison, a portrait of Josephine de Beauharnais painted by Pierre Paul Prudon (1805) is presented nearby. This confirms that here, clothes, furniture and even a pose are assembled from then-active neoclassicism.
Cleopatra in front of Caesar
Jean-Leon Jerome: “Cleopatra before Caesar” (1866)
For the first time, major changes become apparent in this picture of Jerome. On it, a young woman presents her magnificent body, where Caesar is of course a spectator. The exoticism of her clothes is emphasized by the black Nubian slave. Caesar, unlike them, almost disappears into the shadows, this is an old balding man. Although there may be doubts that Jerome reached a much greater historical reality than his predecessors, it is obvious that in his picture the exotic aspect of history has shifted into the spotlight.
Jean Andre Rixen: The Death of Cleopatra (1874)
This process becomes even more apparent in the painting by Jean Andre Rixen. The voluptuous naked body of a woman is represented and well lit here. Exotic dreams became very fashionable thanks to the orientalism popular at that time. Cleopatra appears like an odalisque, like a white harem slave. Historical oddity, which was largely ignored in the 18th century, is now a necessary decorative detail.
Hans Makart: “Death of Cleopatra” (1875) and “Cleopatra. Hunting on the Nile “(1876)
Makart’s paintings can be considered almost a baroque regression, where he also found his artistic style. But with regard to decoration, he makes reasonable attempts to achieve some historical accuracy, in addition to this, wide gestures and a spectacle dominate the picture.
Frank Bernard Dixie: Cleopatra (1876)
Anthony and Cleopatra, Alma-Tadema Sir Lawrence
Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Anthony and Cleopatra (1885)
Dixie and Alma-Tadema show Cleopatra as a beautiful, confident ruler. Of course, she was in some way lecherous, but at that time they omitted the almost obligatory nudity.