The Death of Cleopatra

Copied Edmonia Lewis, The Death of Cleopatra, carved 1876, marble, 6331 1446 in. (160.079.4116.8 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Historical Society of Forest Park, Illinois, 1994.17
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Artwork Details

The Death of Cleopatra
carved 1876
6331 1446 in. (160.079.4116.8 cm.)
Credit Line
Gift of the Historical Society of Forest Park, Illinois
Mediums Description
  • Figure female — full length
  • Animal — reptile — snake
  • Egyptian
  • Portrait female — Cleopatra
  • State of being — death — suicide
  • History — ancient — Egypt
Object Number

Artwork Description

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.

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