About this

Object details

162,6 × 287,6 cm
Inventory number: 
lower left: ALEX. CABANEL./ 1887

More about this work

In 1867 Alexandre Cabanel was elected a member of the Academic Corps of the Antwerp academy. At the time he was a celebrated representative of what later became known as ‘art pompier’. On his installation he was expected to donate a portrait and history painting to the Museum of the Academicians, but the official commission did not follow until 1883. Cabanel donated his self-portrait in 1886 (inv. no. 1506).
At the end of January 1887 he announced that he was hard at work on his great work. Entirely in the fashion of the day he opted for a scene with the ancient Egyptian Queen Cleopatra in the principal role. It was ready just in time for the Paris Salon of 1887, where it was received with high praise, and in September the huge canvas was shipped to Antwerp. Cabanel himself regarded it as one of his best works, and he received the princely sum of 23,500 francs for it. Cleopatra is a typical example of pompier art, a theatrical Salon piece illustrating a key moment from history executed with academic virtuosity in a large size, sharply defined and with an eye for detail.
Cleopatra, who was famous for her power, beauty and relationships with famous Romans like Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, has inspired artists for centuries. Writers, composers, painters and sculptors have related and depicted several episodes from her tumultuous life, above all in the 19th century, when the fascination with ancient Egypt had reached a high pitch. Cleopatra’s tragic death was a popular subject. After the Battle of Actium, where Mark Anthony and Cleopatra were defeated by the fleet of Octavian, the later Emperor Augustus, Cleopatra preferred to die rather than be forced to live under the Roman yoke. Cabanel’s painting shows her preparing for her suicide. The details of the scene are taken from the Greek writer Plutarch, who describes in his biography of Mark Anthony how in her search for the least painful and most efficient deadly poison she ordered experiments to be conducted with snakes. She let them loose on prisoners who had been condemned to death.
Cabanel tells the story very precisely and clearly. The painting is in two parts, with Cleopatra in the right foreground, and her victims in the left background. Slouched languidly on a divan, the queen watches indifferently as the poison is tried out on the prisoners. The maidservant fanning her is also gazing at the spectacle. Two palace guards in the courtyard are carrying off the body of a dead prisoner, while another condemned man is writhing in pain. The gruesome scene leaves the queen completely unmoved. Cabanel’s Cleopatra is beautiful and merciless, voluptuous and wicked.
The artist took his preparation for the historical setting very seriously. The head of the lavishly clad Cleopatra is adorned with the vulture crown and uraeus cobra traditionally worn by Egyptian rulers, and her jewellery and sandals with upturned toes were inspired by Egypt too. Her languorous pose combines several perspectives, which is also a feature of the art of ancient Egypt. Cleopatra’s head is in profile while her shoulders are frontal. Cabanel based his rendering of the palace on illustrations from the famous series of books, Description de l’Égypte (1809-1829). The colonnade is a combination of what was to be seen in the temples of Philae and Esna. The artist added new and imaginary elements to accentuate the image of luxury and decadence, such as the listless leopard, the costly gown, and Cleopatra’s black veil.
Cabanel prepared the composition carefully. The auction catalogue of his studio lists no fewer than five preparatory drawings and one small oil sketch (present whereabouts unknown). The Musée des Beaux-Arts – Hôtel Fabrégat in Béziers has a fine figure study for Cleopatra (inv. no. 28 (893.1.1)). The auction also included a reduced copy (Collection Antonio Juan Pérez Simón, México DF ).

Acquisition history

offer from: Museum van de Academiekers

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