“Cleopatra and Caesar” – An 1866 painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme
The artwork depicts the famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII and the Roman general and dictator Julius Caesar engaged in conversation, showcasing their relationship and the intrigue surrounding their alliance.
Also known as “Cleopatra Before Caesar”, the oil on canvas painting was created by the French artist in 1866. It was said to have been commissioned by Esther Lachmann (1819-1884), a French courtesan and art patron who went by the name La Païva.
When Gérôme completed the painting in 1866, La Païva is said to have been very disappointed with the work. As a result, the famous art patron returned the painting to Gérôme.
In 1866, Gérôme managed to get the painting exhibited at the Paris Salon (French: Salon de Paris), an annual (sometimes biennial) art event that was first held in 1748.
The painting also got a call-up by the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where it was exhibited in 1871.
Figures in the painting
The painting “Cleopatra and Caesar” by Jean-Léon Gérôme depicts a significant moment in history when Cleopatra VII, the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, meets Julius Caesar, the Roman general and statesman. The painting portrays the encounter between the two powerful figures, highlighting their complex relationship and the political alliance between Ptolemaic Egypt and Rome during that time.
Gérôme’s painting encapsulates the allure and intrigue surrounding Cleopatra and her interactions with influential figures of the time. It explores themes of power, politics, and the collision of two great civilizations. The painting offers a glimpse into the historical context and the dynamic personalities of Cleopatra and Caesar, inviting viewers to contemplate their historical significance and the complexities of their relationship.
Scene of the painting
The scene captures a private meeting between Cleopatra and Caesar, showcasing their mutual fascination and attraction. Cleopatra, adorned in luxurious Egyptian attire, is shown presenting herself to Caesar, who is depicted in Roman military dress. The painting captures a sense of tension, drama, and intimacy, as Cleopatra employs her charm and intellect to gain Caesar’s support and consolidate her power in Egypt.
Julius Caesar, portrayed in Roman military attire, stands tall beside Cleopatra. His presence is authoritative, and his gaze is fixed on the queen, conveying a mix of curiosity and admiration. Gérôme masterfully captures the interaction between the two figures, hinting at the complex nature of their relationship.
The painting has been praised by many art critics for its skillful use of light and color, which ultimately brings the scene to life.
Cleopatra’s charm and confidence
The composition centers on enchanting nature of Cleopatra, who is shown emerging from an intricately designed carpet. Bent down at the knees of the Egyptian queen is Apollodorus, the loyal servant who in 48 BC helped Cleopatra sneak into the palace of Alexandria in order to meet Julius Caesar.
In the painting, Cleopatra is shown exuding an air of confidence and allure, dressed in a flowing white garment that contrasts with the rich reds and golds of her surroundings. The Egyptian queen’s captivating beauty is emphasized by her delicate facial features and the intricate jewelry adorning her person.
Depiction of Julius Caesar in the painting
Julius Caesar, portrayed in Roman military attire, sitting at his desk behind Cleopatra. The Roman general’s presence is authoritative, and his gaze is fixed on the queen, conveying a mix of curiosity and admiration. Gérôme masterfully captures the interaction between the two figures, hinting at the complex nature of their relationship.
Message of the painting
Through his meticulous brushwork and careful composition, Gérôme transports viewers to a pivotal moment in history, where two influential individuals from different worlds converge. The painting encapsulates the allure, power dynamics, and cultural exchange between Cleopatra and Caesar, offering a glimpse into their enthralling story.
The scene in Gérôme’s painting was based on the narration in Greek historian Plutarch’s work “Life of Caesar” (in “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans”). Written about a century after the incident took place, Plutarch (c. 46-120 AD) describes how the Egyptian queen was smuggled into the palace in a bag by her servant, Apollodorus.
The historical inaccuracy in Gérôme’s painting
In Gérôme’s painting, he depicts Cleopatra emerging from a rug. This is obviously historically inaccurate as in the original work of Plutarch, Cleopatra was smuggled into the palace in a bag. This inaccuracy was due to the use of the word “carpet” in John Langhorne’s translation of Plutarch’s “Life of Caesar”. At the time the word “carpet” was not seen synonymous with “rug”; instead, it was seen as a type of thick fabric.
Gérôme did not factor in the semantic change of the word “carpet” in the 19th century. Thus, the French painter depicted Cleopatra being snuck into palace in a rug.
Questions and Answers
Below are answers to popular questions about “Cleopatra and Caesar”:
Who came up with the idea of the painting?
It is said that the French writer Prosper Mérimée was the person who proposed the subject of the painting to Gérôme. The proposal came in an 1860 letter sent to Gérôme.
Why did La Païva return the painting?
La Païva, the art patron who commissioned the painting, intended to have the painting proudly displayed in one of her hotels, the Hôtel de la Païva. However, she disliked it, stating that the work was too expensive.
Who eventually bought the painting?
After the painting was returned to Gérôme, the artist proceeded to modify it a bit by adding canvas to the back. In the end, the painting was purchased by Adolphe Goupil (1806-1893), his father-in-law. Goupil was a senior executive of the international auction house Goupil & Cie.
Who was Jean-Léon Gérôme?
Jean-Léon Gérôme was a French painter and sculptor who lived from 1824 to 1904. He was a prominent figure in the academic art movement of the 19th century and is known for his detailed and meticulously executed works. Gérôme’s art often depicted historical, mythological, and orientalist subjects, showcasing his technical skill and attention to detail.
Gérôme’s paintings typically featured rich colors, intricate compositions, and a focus on narrative storytelling. He was known for his ability to create realistic and highly detailed renderings, often incorporating historical accuracy and archaeological research into his works. The French painter’s works covered a wide range of themes, including ancient civilizations, biblical scenes, classical mythology, and Orientalist subjects. Those themes were influenced by his frequent tours of the Middle East and Egypt in particular.
Some of his most notable paintings include: “The Cock Fight” (1846), “The Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ” (1852-1854), “Recreation in a Russian Camp” (1855), “The Slave Market” (1866), “Pollice Verso” (1872), and “L’Eminence Grise” (1873).
He, along with the likes of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) and Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889), was a leading figure in the Academic art movement (also known as Academicism). The movement, which was pioneered by European academies of art, was influenced in particular by the Parisian Académie des Beaux-Arts.
In addition to his skills as a painter, Gérôme was also a talented sculptor, creating several notable sculptural works during his career. He was a respected teacher, and many of his students went on to become successful artists themselves.
Gérôme’s art gained recognition and popularity during his lifetime, and he received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to the art world. His works can be found in museums and private collections around the world, and his legacy continues to influence and inspire artists to this day.
What was the relationship between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar like?
The relationship between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar was a significant and influential one in both their personal lives and in the context of ancient history. Cleopatra, the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, and Julius Caesar, the powerful Roman general and statesman, became involved romantically during a time of political upheaval and shifting alliances.
Their relationship began when Cleopatra sought Julius Caesar’s support in her quest to regain the Egyptian throne. According to the 2nd-century AD Greek historian Plutarch, Cleopatra famously smuggled herself into Caesar’s presence by being placed in bag, an act that demonstrated her resourcefulness and determination.
The two went on to develop a close bond, and Cleopatra accompanied Caesar back to Rome, where she lived in one of his villas.
Their union not only had personal implications but also political consequences. Cleopatra’s presence in Rome caused controversy, as Caesar was already married and had significant political obligations. Nevertheless, Cleopatra bore Caesar a son named Caesarion, who was believed to be his biological child. This further solidified their connection and potential dynastic ties.
Their relationship, while passionate, was also intertwined with political motivations. Cleopatra sought to secure her position as the ruler of Egypt with Caesar’s backing, and Caesar, in turn, saw the alliance as a means to extend his influence and control in the eastern Mediterranean.
After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, Cleopatra’s relationship shifted to another influential Roman figure, Mark Antony, with whom she had three children. This new alliance aimed to consolidate her power in the face of political turmoil in Rome.
The relationship between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar remains a subject of fascination and intrigue, often depicted in literature, art, and popular culture. Their story represents a complex interplay between love, power, and politics, and their union left a lasting impact on the course of history.
Other interesting facts about the painting
- When it was exhibited at an event organized by the Royal Academy of Arts in 1871, the painting was titled “Cléopâtre apportée à César dans un tapis” (Cleopatra brought to Caesar in a carpet).
- Gérôme’s 1866 oil on canvas painting is considered one of the earliest modern paintings of Cleopatra in the presence of Julius Caesar.
- The French painter created the work in time when there was renewed interest in the culture and legacy of ancient Egypt. Known as Egyptomania, Europe’s renewed fascination with that particular culture and time period came after the French general Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801). That interest in the ruins of ancient Egypt was manifested through art, literature and architecture.
- The auction house Goupil & Cie tried to cash in on the period by producing many copies of Gérôme’s painting, giving the public, especially those who could not afford a trip to Egypt, the opportunity to make contact with Egyptian culture.
- For a long period, the painting was in the possession of the family of Darius Ogden Mills (1825-1910), a very successful California banker and philanthropist. In 1990, however, it was sold to a private collector.