Artemisia Gentileschi: Cleopatra

Cleopatra: Artemisia Gentileschi

Cleopatra by Italian Barque painter Artemisia Gentileschi shows the Egyptian queen’s final act: her suicide by the bite of an asp after the defeat of Mark Antony her lover by Julius Caesar. Here Gentileschi in 1635 paints the queen with great realism and without idealization.

Analysis of Gentileschi’s Cleopatra

Cleopatra (c. 1635) is Artemisia Gentileschi’s interesting take on the queen’s final moments. In this vision, the queen has just died having used the bite of a small adder to kill herself so as not to be taken captive by Octavian (future Augustus). The stark pallor of her flesh testifies to the fact. She lies obliquely on her bed, her body occupying the space from left to right displayed to our vantage.

A broad lapis lazuli sheet covers her groin while the rest of her body is nude. Her head is reclining backward, appearing to have fallen off the wrist of her left hand, on which it was resting in expectation of the venom’s fatal effect.

Two of her nurses have burst onto the scene through a dark-red partition behind the bed. They are already grieving her passing (according to ancient sources, Cleopatra’s immediate aides committed suicide as well). The adder that killed Cleopatra is still on the white coverlet, not far from a small basket of flowers to the right.

The end of Cleopatra’s life was more commonly pictured, in paintings, by showing the moments preceding the ultimate gesture (the precise manner of her death being in fact uncertain). Gentileschi’s interest is in the dead body of the queen, which is to say its sheer physicality. Cleopatra appears as an imposing, even masculine, figure. Her flesh communicates heaviness; her left arm seems particularly hefty, adding to an impression of broadness in her shoulders.

This painting was attributed to Gentileschi (or Gentileschi and a collaborator) only in the 1980s. It was previously considered the work of Massimo Stanzione.

Location of Gentileschi’s Cleopatra

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Cleopatra is in a private collection in Rome, Italy. There is also a second version of this painting in Milan with a similar subject matter.

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