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The Death of Cleopatra

Object Details

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Smithsonian American Art Museum Collection
Department
Painting and Sculpture
On View
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Luce Foundation Center, 3rd Floor, W310
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Luce Foundation Center
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Luce Foundation Center, 3rd Floor
Date
carved 1876
Object number
1994.17
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 venomous 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 exhibit that documents the statue’s storied history and conservation.
Credit Line
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Historical Society of Forest Park, Illinois
Artist
Edmonia Lewis, born Greenbush (now Rensselaer), NY 1844-died London, England 1907
Sitter
Cleopatra
Topic
Figure female\full length
Animal\reptile\snake
Egyptian
Portrait female
State of being\death\suicide
History\ancient\Egypt
Medium
marble
Dimensions
63 x 31 1/4 x 46 in. (160.0 x 79.4 x 116.8 cm.)
Data Source
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Restrictions & Rights
CC0
Type
Sculpture
GUID
http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/vk7c940ae99-f92a-455c-bfe5-5b5f09e4864b
Record ID
saam_1994.17

The Death of Cleopatra

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