Art History History Painting

History Painting: ‘The Death of Cleopatra’ by Jean-André Rixens, 1874.

Cleopatra is often portrayed as a beautiful Egyptian women who used her own political shrewdness and sexual allure to secure and recover her family’s lost empire. She actually almost succeeded by manipulating two of Rome’s greatest sons, Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony.

Aa a young women, she co-inherited the Egyptian throne with her younger brother Ptolemy XIII. She didn’t plan on sharing power and for a short while became sole ruler in Egypt. Eventually she was overthrown and exiled by her brother.

While she was in exile, Julius Caesar arrived in Egypt in pursuit of Pompey The Great (who was killed by the Egyptians). It is here that Caesar got caught up in the affairs of the Egyptians. Not long after, Cleopatra seduced him and he willingly restored Cleopatra to the throne by defeating all her enemies (Cleopatra first smuggled herself before Caesar rolled up in a laundry bag, not a carpet, according to historian Simon Sebag Montefiore). The two were inseparable and Cleopatra in time had a son with Caesar. Just before Caesar’s death(assassination) in Rome, it was rumored that he was going to make himself ‘king’ and Cleopatra his queen. Unfortunately, a cruel twist of fate intervened and Cleopatra found herself fleeing Rome.

Back in Egypt, Cleopatra worked hard at re-establishing her authority, however before long another man entered the scene.

Mark Anthony, like Caesar before him, got caught up in Cleopatra’s web. She was going to use Anthony to help her restore the splendor of her royal dynasty. Things may have worked out with it wasn’t for Octavian (the future Emperor of Rome, Augustus). Octavian defeat Anthony in the famous Battle of Actium, and rather than live a life vanquished, Anthony committed suicide. Whether or not Cleopatra truly loved Anthony, she too, followed him into the afterlife, rather than kneel before Octavian.

In the end, I guess you have to admire Cleopatra, because she gambled everything on her bid for empire. But it wasn’t enough. Cleopatra killed herself to avoid being forcibly paraded as a trophy through the streets of Rome by Octavian by arousing a cobra (asp) to bite her in 30 BCE.

French painter Jean-Andre Rixens’ history painting The Death of Cleopatra (1874) is a colourful depiction of arguably the exact moment the fabled Queen of the Nile, Cleopatra, took her own life. While the subject matter seemed to be missing the infamous deadly cobra, I quite like the ambiguity of the death scene. In recent decades numerous theories have gathered steam suggesting that Cleopatra might not have died from a snake bite. Conjecture often points to Cleopatra having possibly ingested a lethal herbal concoction or even applying a toxic lotion to her skin as a cause of death. But no matter how probable these theories might be, the romanticized version of Cleopatra having likely committed suicide by means of a snake bite is far more fitting considering the Egyptian asp was the symbol of royalty.

Of interest, in Rixens’ painting is also Cleopatra’s faithful handmaidens who are illustrated strategically along side the queen. With Cleopatra lying lifeless on the golden couch, we can see one of her handmaiden’s already dead slumped over her feet. The other (in the moments arguably before succumbing to the same fate as her queen) is carefully adjusting Cleopatra’s diadem before Roman soldiers eventually burst through the mausoleum door. The use of light and shadow in the composition is also quite clever drawing our eye at first to a naked Cleopatra with her limp hand over the couch’s edge before allowing us to examine the detail of the whole scene.

This painting is in the public domain.

Robert Horvat is a Melbourne based blogger. He believes that the world is round and that art is one of our most important treasures. He has seen far too many classic films and believes coffee runs through his veins. As a student of history, he favours ancient and medieval history. Music pretty much rules his life and inspires his moods. Favourite artists include The Beatles, Pearl Jam, Garbage and Lana Del Rey.

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