Cleopatra Testing out Poison on Condemned Prisoners


Alexandre Cabanel
Montpellier 1823 - Paris 1889
oil on canvas
165 x 290 cm
Inventory number 1505

The notion of Cleopatra as the archetypal femme fatale of Antiquity has long appealed to the imagination. She ruled over a mighty empire, was a mistress to both Julius Caesar and his successor Mark Antony, and eventually took her own life after the Battle of Actium.
Like many 19th-century writers and artists, the French painter Alexandre Cabanel drew inspiration from the ancient Egyptian queen. It was, after all, the era of Egyptomania, as archaeological finds, scientific discoveries and voyages of exploration were generating an unprecedented interest in the culture of ancient Egypt.
In this canvas, Queen Cleopatra looks on as her servants test a poison on some prisoners. She is seated in luxurious surroundings, adorned with animal hides, textiles and plants. At her feet lies a leopard, a symbol of regal power. A servant keeps her cool with a fan.
Cabanel rendered Cleopatra and her surroundings in accurate, colourful detail. The figures in the background, where the horror takes place, are represented slightly smaller and in a hazier fashion. The painting is a typical example of 'l'art pompier', a derisory term for academic painting from the second half of the 19th century.

Book knowledge

Cabanel based his painting on book illustrations of ancient Egypt. He combined fanciful elements, such as Cleopatra's attire and veils, with historically accurate details. The building in the left of the painting was inspired by the temples of Philae and Edfoe.

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