Cleopatra: Exotic Queen and Femme Fatale

Cleopatra has inspired artists already since the Renaissance. She was at first a great Queen to whose charms succumbed Caesar and Antony two of the most powerful Roman military leaders. On the other hand, there was her tragic suicide, which deprived the victor at least of a part of his triumph. However, the ancient authors agree in the fact that Cleopatra was bitten by a snake in the hand. The bite in the breast was an invention of Shakespeare, which was then taken up eagerly by the visual arts.

Guido Reni: The Death of Cleopatra (1625-30)

Guido Reni: The Death of Cleopatra Guido Reni: Mary Magdalene

Guido Reni shows Cleopatra in the pose of a repentant sinner. For comparison, there is right beside his painting "Mary Magdalene" (1635). It's the same pose, the same expression. The difference - apart from the obligatory snake - is only in the illumination that promises to Mary Magdalene divine grace. Otherwise, there are two women with the look and decor of Italians of the 17th Century, the "historical" is absolutely of no importance at all.

Guido Cagnacci: Death of Cleopatra (1658)

Guido Cagnacci: Death of Cleopatra Guido Cagnacci depicted a largely naked teenager passed away peacefully, though Cleopatra was at the time of her death almost 40 years old. Like many Madonnas of that time Cleopatra and her servants have blond or brown hair, which shows that the foreign/exotic element was irrelevant for the artist. To him, it seemed rather an opportunity to show as much skin as possible, which indeed wasn't as easy with saints.

Gerard Lairesse: Cleopatra's Banquet (c.1680) and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: The Banquet of Cleopatra (c.1744)

Gerard Lairesse: Cleopatra's Banquet Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: The Banquet of Cleopatra

Lairesse and Tiepolo are showing Cleopatra as a typical baroque ruler who receives in her palace a foreign commander. The important thing is the architecture that has absolutely nothing to do with a foreign culture or epoch. In Lairesse case the "exotic" is limited on Cleopatra's naked breasts, which are more influenced by the imagination of his time as a historical reality, and the clothing worn by Antony. Tiepolo then goes even a step further, because his persons are dressed almost entirely in the actual fashion. These adjustments of the historical to the present result not so much from the inability of the artists but much more from a complete indifference regarding the historical.

Jean-Baptiste Regnault: The Death of Cleopatra (1796/1799)

Jean-Baptiste Regnault: The Death of Cleopatra Pierre Paul Prud'hon: Josephine de Beauharnais

Especially compared with Tiepolo it seems that Regnault struggles a little more to achieve historical accuracy. But only at first glance. For comparison I placed next to it a portrait of Josephine de Beauharnais by Pierre Paul Prud'hon (1805). This verifies that here too clothing, furniture and even the pose are picked of the then current neoclassicism.

Jean-Léon Gérôme: Cleopatra Before Caesar (1866)

Jean-Léon Gérôme: Cleopatra Before Caesar The big change becomes first apparent with this painting of Gérôme. There is a young woman who presents her gorgeous body to the voyeur - besides Caesar of course the viewer. The exotic of her clothing is underlined by the black Nubian slave. Caesar by contrast almost disappears in the shadows and is an older man already balding. Although one may doubt that Gérôme achieves much more historical reality than his predecessors, it is obvious that with his painting the exotic aspect of history has moved into the centre of attention.

Jean André Rixens: The Death of Cleopatra (1874)

Jean André Rixens: The Death of Cleopatra This process becomes even more evident with the painting by Jean André Rixens. Here the voluptuous naked body of a woman is presented and superb illuminated. With the popular orientalism to that time exotic dreams had become a great fashion. Cleopatra appears as an odalisque, as a white harem slave.
The historically strange, which had been largely ignored in the 18th Century, is now a necessary decorative accessory.

Hans Makart: The Death of Cleopatra (1875) and Cleopatra Hunting on the Nile (1876)

Hans Makart: The Death of Cleopatra Hans Makart: Cleopatra Hunting on the Nile

Makart's paintings are looking almost like a regress onto Baroque, where he also found his artistic patterns. But regarding the decoration he makes reasonable efforts for some historical accuracy, but else the paintings are dominated by the grand gestures, or just the spectacle.

Frank Bernard Dicksee: Cleopatra (1876) and Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Antony and Cleopatra (1885)

Frank Bernard Dicksee: Cleopatra Alma-Tadema: Antony and Cleopatra

Dicksee and Alma-Tadema show Cleopatra as a beautiful, confident ruler. Certainly somehow lascivious, but they omit the then almost obligatory nudity. In addition, both waive the oriental exotic decoration in favour of a historically more correct Hellenistic outfit.

Alexandre Cabanel: Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners (1887)

Alexandre Cabanel: Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners On Cabanel's painting again dominates the spectacle. The beautiful but cruel Cleopatra is now studying cold and impassively the effect of poison on some poor prisoners. The painter also makes great efforts with the exotic dress and the Egyptian architecture in the background, which he probably knew by the then very popular prints of the paintings by David Roberts.

Frederick Arthur Bridgman: Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae (1896)

Frederick Arthur Bridgman: Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae For Bridgman architecture plays a similarly important role. To which he added light and landscape. Bridgman himself had traveled in Egypt and used his impressions to a series of paintings - only partially with historic motifs. Cleopatra is no longer so important. She is merely a pretext to present a beautiful woman in front of an Egyptian backdrop.

We can therefore state that the exotic oriental decoration, which started in the middle of the 19th Century, became increasingly until it evolved to the main purpose.

Gyula Benczúr: The Death of Cleopatra (1911)

Gyula Benczúr: The Death of Cleopatra Especially in this context, the painting of Gyula Benczúr is impressive. He returns not only to the traditional (baroque) pose, but shows as the only artist an older suffering woman.

Art Deco

With the success of modern art there came actually also the end of history painting. No artist could any longer pretend to show how Cleopatra has been. The response of the Art Deco was therefore to use history as a sign, a symbol. Cleopatra was transformed from a historical figure into a mirror image of the seductive woman in the roaring twenties, the timeless femme fatale.

Joseph Christian Leyendecker: Cleopatra Rolf Armstrong: Cleopatra Henry Clive: Cleopatra

Art Deco Cleopatras by Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1920s), Rolf Armstrong (1939) and Henry Clive c.1946.


The real heir of history painting became the cinema. And if you look at the representations of Cleopatra in the movies, you recognize immediately how much these pictures have been influenced by the history painting mostly of the 19th century.

Theda Bara as Cleopatra Theda Bara as Cleopatra in 1917.

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra in 1934.

Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra Liz Taylor as Cleopatra Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra in 1945 and Liz Taylor in 1963.

Leonor Varela as Cleopatra Monica Bellucci as Cleopatra Leonor Varela as Cleopatra in 1999 and Monica Bellucci in 2002.