Cleopatra reclines in a lush Egyptian setting. A maid fans her with cool air while a leopard keeps guard at her feet. The Queen of Egypt looks on indifferently as her servants test out a poison on condemned prisoners. Or are they former lovers? One has died already, while the other suffers his death agony. Alexandre Cabanel uses the scene to present Cleopatra as a terrifyingly cold-hearted sovereign, preparing for her own imminent suicide with no trace of emotion.
The painting dates from a point in the 19th century when Europe had fallen under the spell of Ancient Egypt. Cleopatra was a particular fascination: a strong woman at the head of one of the most powerful empires of the classical world. Her love affairs with Julius Caesar and the Roman general Mark Anthony, as well as her alleged suicide in 33 bce, meant that she assumed mythical proportions. Artists and authors portrayed Cleopatra as the epitome of the femme fatale – an image confirmed here by Cabanel in what he himself considered one of his finest works. The atmosphere he evokes is one of operatic drama. Cleopatra knows that her empire will die with her and that the end is near.
History and imagination
Cabanel combines his knowledge of Egyptian antiquity here with his imagination. The building is based on illustrations of Egyptian temples and the leopard refers to the goddess Mafdet, representing royal power. The vulture in Cleopatra’s headdress, meanwhile, was a symbol of the female in the Egyptian Late Empire. Her robes and veils, by contrast, are pure fantasy, intended to evoke decadence and seduction. The leading role is firmly claimed by the Queen herself. Cabanel has elaborated her figure with great refinement, whereas the prisoners are demoted to a colourless and somewhat blurry place in the background.
The choice of a historical figure who speaks to the imagination; the mixture of historically accurate details and imagination; the technically refined execution: all these elements are typical of the Art pompier strand within academic art. Cabanel painted the work in 1887 for the museum of the Antwerp Academy, to which anyone accepted as an Academician was required to submit both a work of art and a portrait. Construction of the new Museum of Fine Arts – the future KMSKA – was already in full swing in that year.
Cabanel and Stevens
Alexandre Cabanel was a celebrated master and an influential figure in his lifetime. He taught at the École des Beaux-Arts and sat on the jury of the official Salon de Paris – an internationally renowned art exhibition at the time. Besides classical, historical and religious subjects, he specialized in portraits of women from higher social circles. Just like his contemporary Alfred Stevens, whose Parisian Sphinx is another highlight within the KMSKA collection. A sphinx that has nothing to do with Ancient Egypt, by the way, but which refers instead to the dreamy expression of the lady in the portrait.