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Death of Cleopatra

CAT 166 G Cooke after Regnault Death of Cleopatra BA 125.jpg

CAT 166. George Cooke after Jean-Baptiste Regnault. Death of Cleopatra. London: Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, Sept. 1, 1808. Published in the Historic Gallery of Paintings and Portraits, vol. 4, 1815. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

In ancient history, nearly four centuries separate the death of Socrates in Athens (399 B.C.) from that of Cleopatra in Alexandria (30 B.C.). In art history, twelve years separate David’s Death of Socrates (1787) from Regnault’s Death of Cleopatra (1799). Those years had brought tumultuous changes to the life of Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754-1829) as well as to that of Jacques-Louis David. From 1776 to 1780, Regnault and David had studied and painted together in the city of Rome. During the 1780s Regnault, like David, became a member of the Académie Royale and exhibited at the annual Salon. After the revolution, Regnault was appointed to commissions by the Commune of Paris, but these were “abolished, at the instance of David, in 1793.” During the period of the Consulate (1799-1804), Regnault received commissions for paintings from Napoleon which continued into the period of the Empire, though most of these he chose not to exhibit at the Salon. After the restoration of Louis XVIII in 1816, Regnault remained in Paris and received one royal commission, but, like David in Brussels, he devoted himself primarily to mythological themes, including that of Cupid and Psyche. Although he had been considered “a rising star of the regeneration of French art” in the early 1780s, Regnault’s subsequent reception suffered from his “lifelong inability to summon up David’s theatrical power” (Sells 93-94).

The Death of Cleopatra is one of three paintings that Regnault exhibited at the Louvre in 1799; the others were The Three Graces and Hercules and Alcestis (Cazin 570). The commentary written to accompany Cooke’s outline engraving in volume 4 of the 7-volume edition of the Historic Gallery (but printed by mistake alongside Alexander Veronese’s Death of Cleopatra in volume 3) devotes most of its space to the history of Cleopatra in her relations with Caesar and Antony, emphasizing her fluency in languages and devotion to learning in addition to her “seductive charms” (n. p.). This commentary omits earlier information provided in the four-volume edition emphasizing that Regnault has chosen to depict the “last moment” of Cleopatra’s life, in which she is said to have “expired suddenly, without any convulsion, by the virulence of the poison of the asp” (visible on the floor beneath her body). The mourning figures are identified as Charmion and Iras, one having “already died by excess of grief, the other is expiring” (HG 3, facing p. 141).

Compare Cook’s outline engraving with those in Melville’s copies of Le Reine Atossa and L’Asie vaincu from Flaxman’s The Persians, first engraved by Piroli in 1795 (CAT 3, 5), and you can see similarities in both subject and style between Flaxman, who studied in Rome from 1787-92, and Regnault, who had been there a decade earlier. Compare Cook’s outline engraving with Regnault’s original painting (fig. 1) and you can see the difference made by the absence of color. In the painting, the asp on the floor is barely visible, and all those visual symbols of Egyptian culture conspicuous in the engraving fade into the shadows surrounding the bright light on the striking red fabric highlighting the suddenly stricken body against the dead black background.

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Figure 1. Jean-Baptiste Regnault. Death of Cleopatra, oil on canvas, 1797. Museum Kunstpalast. On extended loan from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.