A naked woman reclines on a luxurious bed, a small pink snake wriggling through her fingers. This is Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, encouraging an asp to bite and poison her – according to some accounts, the cause of her death. Famous for her beauty and her love affairs with the Roman generals Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, she died in 30 BC after the defeat of her and Mark Antony’s forces by Octavian, the future Roman emperor.
Working out who made this painting is made difficult by the fact that the artist was a poor draughtsman and an incompetent painter, but seems to have been copying the work of a more skilful and imaginative artist. There is a strong stylistic resemblance between this painting and pictures by Simon de Mailly, who is known for creating pastiches based on paintings by better artists. The original composition may have been devised by one of Raphael’s assistants.
This painting was once circular and surrounded by a black painted border (parts survive at the lower right) which has been rather clumsily sawn off, removing parts of the painting with it. It’s painted on poplar – used in Italy and occasionally in France, mainly in Provence – with a gesso ground. The picture’s appearance is distorted by discoloured and degraded varnishes. There are large losses of paint in the window sill, the hair above Cleopatra’s left eye and the carving on the bed, where the horse in the centre is almost entirely a restorer’s reconstruction.
Working out who made this painting is made difficult by the fact that the artist was a poor draughtsman and an incompetent painter, but seems to have been copying the work of a more skilful and imaginative artist. Cleopatra is very strangely proportioned. She has a small head and feet but a massively wide abdomen, and her knees and calves are malformed. Her ear, arms and hands are simply badly drawn and the artist has badly mismanaged the foreshortening of her left foot. But the way the figure is posed within the circle is clever. So we are looking for two artists: the more able one who designed the composition and the very much less able one who actually painted this picture.
There is a strong stylistic resemblance between this painting and pictures executed at Avignon by Simon de Mailly (de Châlons). The poor drawing, the shaky knowledge of perspective and anatomy, the simplified and misplaced ear, and the vastly oversimplified modelling are all found in other works by this painter. Both this and his Holy Kindred (Musée Calvet, Avignon) are painted on a poplar support. De Mailly is known for creating paintings that are pastiches based on works by Michelangelo, Raphael and his pupils, and others. He seems to have had access to a large collection of drawings brought back from Rome by Henri Guigues, with whom he worked. He may have found the composition that inspired this one among Guigues' copies, and that composition may have been created by one of Raphael’s assistants.
This painting may have been produced in the 1540s – at about the same time as Holy Kindred – and may have formed part of a series of famous women or subjects from ancient history.
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