Artemisia Gentileschi: Cleopatra

Cleopatra: Artemisia Gentileschi

Cleopatra is a 1635 historical baroque painting by Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi. It is located in a private collection in Rome, Italy. There is also a second version of this painting in Milan with a similar subject matter.

The painting 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.


Cleopatra, famously known as Cleopatra VII, was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. She was born in 69 BCE in Alexandria, Egypt, and became queen at the age of 18. Cleopatra’s lineage traced back to Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals who took control of Egypt after Alexander’s death. Throughout her life, Cleopatra became renowned for her beauty, intelligence, and political acumen.

Cleopatra’s reign was marked by political intrigue and power struggles. Egypt, an ancient civilization at the crossroads of major empires, was constantly entangled in the political affairs of the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire. Cleopatra skillfully navigated these turbulent waters by forming relationships with influential Roman leaders.

One of the most famous relationships in Cleopatra’s life was with Julius Caesar, the Roman general and statesman. In 48 BCE, Cleopatra met Caesar in Egypt, and their alliance strengthened her position as queen. They had a son named Caesarion, whom Cleopatra presented as Caesar’s heir. However, their relationship was cut short when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE.

After Caesar’s death, Cleopatra aligned herself with Mark Antony, another powerful Roman leader. She formed a romantic and political partnership with him, which further secured her influence in the Roman world. Cleopatra and Mark Antony had three children together. However, their relationship faced challenges as Mark Antony’s rival, Octavian (later known as Emperor Augustus), gained power and sought to undermine Antony’s authority.

In 31 BCE, the Battle of Actium unfolded between Octavian’s forces and the combined fleet of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The battle resulted in a decisive victory for Octavian, leading to Cleopatra and Antony’s defeat. Fearing capture and humiliation, Cleopatra took her own life on August 12, 30 BCE, reportedly by allowing an asp (a venomous snake) to bite her.

Cleopatra’s legacy extends far beyond her tragic end. She was a formidable ruler, known for her intellect and political acumen. Cleopatra was a patron of the arts, supporting poets, scholars, and philosophers. She spoke multiple languages and was highly educated in various fields. Her rule also witnessed advancements in architecture, literature, and trade within Egypt.

Cleopatra’s image has been immortalized in art, literature, and popular culture. Her beauty, charisma, and allure have captivated artists and writers throughout history. Shakespeare’s play “Antony and Cleopatra” and films like “Cleopatra” starring Elizabeth Taylor have contributed to her legendary status.

Despite her Greek ancestry, Cleopatra embraced Egyptian culture and presented herself as the embodiment of the divine Egyptian pharaohs. Her reign marked the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the beginning of Egypt’s integration into the Roman Empire.

Cleopatra’s life and legacy continue to fascinate and inspire. She exemplified the complexities of power, the struggles of a female ruler in a male-dominated world, and the delicate balance between personal ambition and political survival. Through her intelligence, charm, and determination, Cleopatra left an indelible mark on history as one of the most iconic figures of ancient Egypt and the Roman world.

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