• In Part 2 of our Cleopatra’s Choice blogpost, authors Vicki León and Vicky Alvear Shecter join forces as “Team Viper” to argue the merits, historical and artistic, of the Queen of the Nile’s portrayal through the centuries. We’ve chosen seven portraits of the famed death scene to comment on—and argue over! Welcome to Queen Cleopatra as Rorschach blot.
Jean Andre Rixens, circa 1874.
VL: Although Plutarch describes Cleopatra as “set out in all her royal ornaments,” later artists like Jean Rixens (circa 1874) often chose to sensationalize her death. I call this one Cleo’s “most tasteful nudie deathbed scene.” The wicker shape on the floor, a discreet reminder of Plutarch’s comment about the killer asp hidden in a basket of figs. Her personal attendants servants are masterfully portrayed; a snaky object appears to
have fatally struck the woman on the left.
VAS: I like that the artist chose to illustrate this melodramatic moment. Plutarch says it happened like this: Cleopatra’s handmaiden Charmion looks “offstage” because a Roman soldier has just burst in to stop Cleo. He asks if the queen is really dead and Charmion answers, “Yes, a death befitting the descendant of so many kings.” Then she drops dead. I love that the artist assumes we know this bit from Plutarch. However, the nudity is distracting, even though it’s displayed with some dignity as compared to some of these other works.
Sir Frank Dicksee
VL: An English painter of the pre-Raphaelite school, best known for his passionate painting of Romeo and Juliet, Frank Dicksee’s Cleopatra is languidly beautiful but frozen, considering the emotion of that moment.
Her blouse is suggestively slipped off one shoulder as though the snake
had already had its lunch. In one hand, she holds a rather pathetic wormy creature. As do other artists, Dicksee is fixated on the look of silky garments.
VAS: I call his treatment ‘respectful’ (again, compared to the others). In addition, I like that she’s on a throne, the only one of this group that places her in a seat of power. The animal rug—something we’ll see again and again—however, is as much a call to her “exotic” kingdom as it is a symbol of her supposed animalistic (i.e., sexual) nature.
VL: Now we’re entering real melodrama country. This Cleopatra by late 1800s English painter Reginald Arthur clamps a viper firmly to her breast and vamps us with a campy Hollywood pose, while her servant appears to
be practicing a diving maneuvre.
VAS: Okay, here we go—our first painting to show the queen in a moment of…um, sexual ecstasy while dying (because all women do that, don’t they?) Look, even her toes are curling! (Waiter, I’ll have what she’s having!) But let’s be real, not even Cleopatra can pull off an O-face with dignity. Which is, of course, the point. Remember, we’re supposed to be witnessing the moment a human being commits suicide in the face of devastating loss—the murder of her firstborn, the death of her husband, and the loss of her kingdom. By turning the viewer into a voyeur, we lose her humanity completely and only see the highly sexualized side of her supposed wanton nature (Augustus wins again).
VL: This lumpy, bored, anatomically impossible Cleopatra executed by famed Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi is doubly disappointing because it’s a half-hearted cliché and because Artemisia was capable of so much more—as artist and as a woman. Gentileschi was herself the victim of a sexual predator as a teen; at the ensuing trial, she became the scandalous spotlight instead of the defendant.
VAS: I’m very curious as to why Artemisia painted her in this insipid and unoriginal way. Look at what she’s capable of: the masterpiece of “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” for instance!
(http://www.artemisia-gentileschi.com/judith1.html) That work is shocking in its violence and power. Look at the women’s faces—the concentration, the determination! I wish she’d given Cleo the same ferocity. For all we know, this could have been a commissioned work in which some old fart told her to paint that “Egyptian hussy” in the buff….
VL: Italian painter Massimo Stanzion in the 1630s produced this compelling yet odd rendering of Cleopatra, sweatily nude in a setting that has a birthing chamber feel to it. The villain of the piece resembles a long ungainly piece of rubber tubing more than a living creature.
VAS: At one art website, this painting is classified as mythology. Good call. Because it’s purely mythical that she was blond and that she was nude when she offed herself. Most likely, Queen Cleopatra wore ceremonial or religious robes, as Isis. Worse, it looks as though she’s preparing herself for a gynecological exam—I almost expect to see stirrups in the corner! All joking aside, this is yet another example of how Cleo’s image as a “sexy beast” got expanded and reinforced over the centuries, obscuring the more complex politics and realities of her story.
VL: In this work, 1640s era French painter Claude Vignon reveals more of his own phobias than anything else, with his ghastly, drooling, phallic snake “conquering” an eyes-rolled-back-into-her-head Cleopatra.
VAS: My initial response to this painting was, “Holy mother of god, what IS that thing??” That snake is SO disturbing. Looks like it has a wolf’s head! Because of the peculiar head of this serpent-cum-snake/monster, I’m guessing that Cleopatra here is a stand-in for Eve (because, you know, she was blond too). I like the fur mantle on her lap; necessary of course because it gets so darn cold in Egypt.
VL: Although Hungarian Gyula Benczur is technically a better painter than Vignon, he manages to convey even more leering cheesiness in his 1911 portrait of a ghostly-pale and raddled Cleopatra, bosoms in the spotlight, the better to be bitten. He did manage to show a reasonably authentic Egyptian headdress, complete with a one-uraeus crown.
VAS: The snake is at breast level, which screams: “Look here!” This despite the fact that Plutarch tells us Cleopatra had small puncture wounds on the inside of the arm. The great queen is again reduced to nothing more than a pair of boobs. The face, however, is interesting. Here she’s not her real age of 39—nor is she beautiful. She looks tired and defeated, the only glimmer of authenticity that shines through for me. The real Cleopatra was likely in great emotional pain. But once again, the bared breasts distract us from her humanity, focusing solely on her body and sexuality.
VL: These painters must not have gotten out much; their snakes are the lamest renderings of an essentially tubular creature that I’ve ever seen. Would you agree, Vicky?
VAS: And how. Still, what shocked me the most—seeing all seven paintings at one go—was how unoriginal and predictable they were. Naked Cleo? Check. Phallus-like snake in a suggestive position? Check. Cleo having an o—oh, well, you know what I mean. But seriously, none could come up with anything else? Where was the defiance? The “I won after all” look of triumph after tricking Augustus, her conqueror? The grief of a woman who’d just lost her son, her kingdom, and her dreams? Instead we get pervy pseudo-porn. I was really hoping for something more than just tit-ilation, you know?