Images of Cleopatra often emphasize elements of sexuality, decadence, and the cool, calculating nature of the ancient Egyptian queen. The prominence of such representations is due to a dependence upon surviving Roman accounts that portrayed her as a wealthy, cunning, dangerous, and seductive woman. These accounts fed into the beliefs about Cleopatra during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and influenced how she would be depicted in art and literature. Also during this period, a modern awareness of the Middle East and North Africa developed that stressed the differences between the West and what was defined as the Orient. Artists, such as Jean-Leon Gerome, illustrated these commonly held beliefs though images of exotic customs and people.
In Cleopatra before Caesar of 1866, Gerome’s composition perpetuates the old myth of Cleopatra and also expresses the modern Western perception of the Orient, known as Orientalism. Similar images by other artists, such as Rixen’s The Death of Cleopatra, also portray exotic Middle Eastern customs and goods as a means of expressing what was believed to comprise both ancient and modern life in the Middle East. Cleopatra was the perfect subject for use in Orientalist paintings. Her legend played perfectly into European concepts of the Orient, and artists were quick to exploit such a persona.
Douglas Sonnenschein, ’02 Norfolk, NE
Sponsor: Christina McOmber