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The death of Cleopatra

The Death of Cleopatra
The Death of Cleopatra

Taking a tour of our Smithsonian Treasures exhibition, let’s stop to admire this sculpture of The Death of Cleopatra.

As the catalogue entry reads, “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.”

This sculpture inspired Cara Kelly‘s submission to the project, which she describes here:

“I first became aware of the artist, sculptor Edmonia Lewis and her work ‘The Death of Cleopatra’ through the Smithsonian’s podcast ‘Sidedoor’. At the time I was also first in contact with Cities and Memory, so when I was asked if I would be involved in the ‘Smithsonian Treasures Exhibition’ and ‘The Death of Cleopatra’ was one of the works listed it was an intuitive choice for me to make.

“‘The Death Of Cleopatra’ took Edmonia four years to complete, was created in Rome and accomplished for the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 and depicts a scene from Classical antiquity. The work bridges two different eras, i.e. the one it depicts -namely the death of Cleopatra at the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty, the end of the war between Anthony and Octavian (Augustus) – and the one in which it was created… the ‘Capture of Rome’ in 1870 the end of the reign of the Papal States under the Holy See and the unification of the Italian peninsula under Emmanuel II.

“Perhaps using pencil and manuscript combined with digital sequencing samples of strings and choir is my own attempt at bridge-building. The sculptures own history and the life and work of Edmonia engaged me for many weeks and led me to a richer appreciation for both.

“In writing this piece I have sought to accompany her work as you might a soloist with first and foremost respect to the great skill and voice of the artist and they’re creation. I would hope that the viewer and the listener will also be inspired to further appreciation of the work of Edmonia Lewis.”