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The Death of Cleopatra

carved 1876 Edmonia Lewis Born: Greenbush, New York 1844 Died: London, England 1907 marble 63 x 31 1/4 x 46 in. (160.0 x 79.4 x 116.8 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the Historical Society of Forest Park, Illinois 1994.17 Smithsonian American Art Museum
Luce Foundation Center, 3rd Floor, W310


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 exhibit that documents the statue’s storied history and conservation.

Keywords

Animal - reptile - snake

Ethnic - Egyptian

Figure female - full length

History - ancient - Egypt

Portrait female - Cleopatra

State of being - death - suicide

sculpture

stone - marble