Cleopatra testing poison on condemned prisoners

Alexandre Cabanel • Painting, 1887, 87.6×148 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Historical scene
Style of art: Academism
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1887
Size: 87.6×148 cm
Artwork in selections: 19 selections

Description of the artwork «Cleopatra testing poison on condemned prisoners»

Cleopatra tests the poison on prisoners, one of them is dying in great pain, and already lifeless body of the second one is being carried away by the servants. The Egyptian Queen remains so popular among the artists, poets and film directors. Her image is considered to be the personification of passion, vice and the fatal power of women over men.

The plot is the story of how Cleopatra "tested"  various poisons on prisoners in order to choose the most effective and painless to keep it with her in case she would have to commit a suicide (and the case turned up, as we know).

Cabanel is often blamed for the fact that the tragedy of the situation in the picture is not reflected. However, specifically in this case, such a remark is not quite true. Except from the point of view of Cleopatra and her maids, and if globally, the hard time is something out of the ordinary? Not at all. The lives of the prisoners belong to the Queen. However, Cabanel does not seek to show us and the indifference of the Queen to the lives of others, it is the external aspect of what is happening, and he demonstrates in all his glory.

Cleopatra in luxury robes gracefully leaning on the couch. It's cold and, no matter how inappropriate the word in relation to the situation, but relaxed. Beside Cleopatra is the Cheetah. According to Egyptian mythology, it is the personification of the goddess Mafdet – the protector of the pharaohs in charge of justice, primarily the area that comes to executions. Mafdet is traditionally depicted as a woman with the head of a Cheetah. And the head of the Cleopatra headdress adorns the neck, symbolizing the female principle. We should not forget that the vulture feeds on carrion, so that the place of execution he belongs.

The composition is divided into two parts: the shaded "island" from which the sleek, proud Queen with her graceful maid, beautiful fabrics, surrounded by flowers, lazily and indifferently watch what is happening, and grueling sun over the square in front of the columns (how well painted!), which are the execution.

Author: Alain Esaulova