Luce Center Label
Cleopatra (69 - 30 BCE), the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 to 30 BCE, is often best known for her dramatic suicide, allegedly from the fatal bite of a poisonous snake. Here, Edmonia Lewis portrayed Cleopatra in the moment after her death, wearing her royal attire, in majestic repose on a throne. The identical sphinx heads flanking the throne represent the twins she bore with Roman general Marc Antony, while the hieroglyphics on the side have no meaning. Lewis was working at a time when Neoclassicism was a popular artistic style that favored classical, Biblical, or literary themes—thus Cleopatra was a common subject. Unlike her contemporaries who often depicted an idealized Cleopatra merely contemplating suicide, Lewis showed the queen’s death more realistically, after the asp’s venom had taken hold—an attribute viewed as “ghastly” and “absolutely repellant” in its day (William J. Clark, Great American Sculpture, 1878). Despite this, the piece was first exhibited to great acclaim at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 and critics raved that it was the most impressive American sculpture in the show. Not long after its debut, however, Death of Cleopatra was presumed lost for almost a century—appearing at a Chicago saloon, marking a horse’s grave at a suburban racetrack, and eventually reappearing at a salvage yard in the 1980s. The Museum has an online exhibition that documents the statue’s storied history and conservation.
(-From The Smithsonian)