An Image of Cleopatra?

While killing some time this weekend, I was poking around the archives of the New York Times via Google and in the October 12, 1884 edition I found this very interesting excerpt in an Arts column:

If you click on that, you’ll get the full image (I think) but the gist of it is the following:

  • at Cortona there was on view an encaustic image of Cleopatra
  • it is said to be the word of Timomakos of Byzantium (a contemporary of Julius Caesar)
  • it depicts the famous queen sporting jewellery reminiscent of that found by Heinrich Schliemann
  • the queen is also holding an asp

We are told that a Mr. John Sartain would be writing a book all about this image and include an engraving.  This is where the interwebs get all interesting because, as might be anticipated, that book is available online at the Internet Archive: On the antique painting in encaustic of Cleopatra, discovered in 1818 (1885 — there are apparently later versions) . The frontispiece includes the promised image:

Even though it’s a depiction of a depiction, I’m sure folks will readily recognize that ‘upward gaze’ as belonging to an later time in Roman art and it doesn’t seem to be the norm in wax encaustic paintings which we have, but I digress. Another version of the book at Google seems to be missing this frontispiece. The book only spends a few pages on this specific item, but it has an interesting provenance/backstory … especially in these days when we’re used to simply reading that something comes ‘from a Swiss collection’.

This is from pp 10 ff, after a section describing the ‘Muse of Cortona’, found in the same area:

The other example of ancient tablet painting is one of greater importance, and is preserved in the Villa of the Baron de Benneval at the Piano di Sorrento. This also is ingood hands but it ought to find a permanent resting-place in some national collection, where it should be forever safe. It represents Cleopatra receiving her death from the bite of an asp, and of course it cannot be claimed that it is a portraint from life, as it was obviously painted subsequent to her tragic end. It was discovered by Micheli, the well-known antiquary, under the cella of the temple of Serapis, at Hadrian’s Villa.

I haven’t been able to identify this ‘well known’ antiquary (is he someone associated with forgeries?); if folks can point me in a direction, that would be much appreciated … after a digression on the finding of the other painting we get more details on the discovery:

The history of the Cleopatra since its discovery is briefly this. Dr Micheli and his brother, who were associated in the ownership, endeavoured to secure a safe and permanent repository for their treasure in the famous Florentine Museum through a sale to the Grand Duke of Tuscany,but the large price demanded was refused, at a time so little removed from the political convulsions and great wars of the first French Empire, the finances of the Duchy requiring yet many years of economy for their re-establishment. Some years later, the business of the Micheli brothers falling into a decline, they realized funds by pledging the picture with some Jews, and soon after both died. The charges went on increasing with time, and the heirs finding themselves unable to redeem it, sold it to an acquaintance of the Baron de Benneval, subject to these accumulated charges, and he rescued it from the hands of the usurers at serious sacrifice. Subsequently the new owner also found he could not afford to keep it, and the present owner purchased it from him in the year 1860.

I omit a paragraph on times it was exhibited and a passing mention that it was placed “on an underbed of a peculiar cement” for stability purposes; it continues:

In 1869 the Emperor Louis Napoleon made an offer to purchase, which was reluctantly agreed to, and the picture was transported to Paris with the view to the fulfillment of the arrangement; but the war with Germany began, and just on the arrival of the picture in Paris there occurred the battle of Forbach, which caused hesitation as to risking its delivery. During the German siege of Paris and the Commune following, the painting was under the protection of the Prince Czartoryski, and after the liberation of the city the picture was returned to Sorrento, where it has remained ever since.

Now we get an ancient reference:

I have now only to relate what appears to have been the origin of the picture, and how it came to the place where it was found. Augustus Caesar being deprived of the presence of Cleopatra in person to grace his triumph (the Queen having evaded that humiliating exposure by suicide), decided on having at least a representation of her. It is on record that a picture was painted for this purpose, and was borne on a car or litter near his own, along with other objects of Egyptian interest and of great value, taken from the monument in which she died; and since it was carried on the attendant car, it was obviously a tablet picture. After it had answered this use, he placed it as an offering in the temple of Saturn at Rome. There can be little doubt that this is the Sorrento picture.

Before the rest, we should mention that Plutarch’s Life of Antonius (86.3) mentions an image being carried in the triumph. Dio (51.21) mentions an ‘effigy’ of Cleopatra on a couch in the procession. As often, we seem to be getting ambiguous/conflicting messages from our sources who are writing more than a century after the fact. In any event, the relevant bit of Sartain continues:

This painting has given rise to voluminous literary research, and some writers claim that it is the work of the famous Byzantine artist, Timomakos, who was the author of two pictures purchased by Julius Caesar at the enormous price of eighty talents ($350,000), which he presented as an offering to the temple of Venus Genetrix. One of these was of ” Medea,” the other “Ajax,” the former one unfinished. It is also asserted that this artist saw Cleopatra when she visited Greece, sum-moned thither by Mark Anthony, and Anthon places him as cotemporary with Caesar and the Egyptian Queen, although some authorities locate him at an earlier period. Be this as it may, by whomsoever done, it was doubtless painted about twenty-nine years before the Christian era — assuming it to be the identical picture known to have been produced for the use named. Some hundred and forty years later, the Emperor Hadrian removed from Rome a large amount of the choicest art treasures of the city to enrich and adorn the vast villa he had caused to be built near Tivoli (the ancient Tibur), and no doubt the Sorrento Cleopatra picture was among the objects thus gathered, and it found an appropriate resting-place in the temple of the Egyptian god Serapis, since that was the locality of its discovery.

Timomachus is, in fact, an encaustic artist of the time mentioned by Pliny the Elder (NH 35.136 … thanks to assorted folks on Twitter and Facebook for helping me track that down efficiently). The rest of Sartain’s book really has little of interest for us. My next foray was into a magazine/journal called Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly (vol. 27; 1889). An article by one John Paul Bocock (pp. 537 ff) entitled “Some Artistic Conceptions of Cleopatra” has an interesting statement on p. 539:

Marvelous as it may seem, the authenticity of the Encaustic Cleopatra was questioned chiefly on account of the freshness of the colors, says Dr. R Schoener, the great German expert. Fragments from the slate have been ground up,however, and the age of the wax and resin colors verified.

I’m not sure what dating methods would have been in use in 1889 … anyone know?

Last, and certainly not least, I direct the reader to a very interesting page at Lacus Curtius (which I stumbled upon, archaeologist-like) while doing the ref to Plutarch above. It’s an extract from Sir Thomas Brown’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, which seems to be describing just such a painting back in the 17th century. The notes are more interesting, and seem to relate to the discovery of the encaustic under consideration by us. There are also some more references to ancient sources. What I find interesting — but not surprising — is that the author of the page (James Eason) has been unable to trace the whereabouts of this encaustic. He speculates that it’s possibly in a museum in Cortona. Does anyone know what happened to this? It seems very likely to be a fake — does anyone know of any scholarly literature debunking its authenticity? As far as I can find, the Popular Monthly item is the last mention, but it’s clear that there was skepticism about its authenticity by that time.

UPDATE (the next morning):  while getting my five shots of espresso in me this a.m., I came across James Jackson Jarves,  “An Assumed Example of Greek Easel-Painting of the Best Period of Antiquity,” The Art Journal (1875-1887), New Series, Vol. 1, (1875), p. 177, which obviously predates Sartain’s work. A notable quote:

“Certain critics, however, considered it to be one of the experiments made in the last century by Count de Caylus to resuscitate the lost Art [sc. encaustic].”

Jarves doesn’t seem to have actually seen it; he goes on to talk about the Muse of Cortona. Anne Claude de Caylus (the Comte de Caylus) is suitably introduced in the relevant Wikipedia article. He does seem to have been trying to revive the encaustic technique.

2 thoughts on “An Image of Cleopatra?

  1. Excellent article. I’ve been researching this antique (or at least early 1800s) encaustic painting of Cleopatra by myself and find basically the same information as you. Up to now, you probably have already got that NYT’s 1884 note misunderstood Sartains work and incorrectly situated Cleopatra’s picture at Cortona (where Polyhymnya Muse or Cortona Muse is still kept, but now “downgraded” as a 18th century work), when in fact last notice we have of its location is Piano de Sorrento, at Baron of Benneval’s villa, which I’m trying to find (up to now unsuccessfully). I believe this painting is still in Italy, maybe at that very villa (whose name have changed) or at some italian museum, kept forgotten on storage room (we call it here in my country : “museum’s technical reserve” ), perhaps after being considered fake by somebody versed in the history of art and painting. Actually, taking a look at Sartain’s book and his engravings (he was a master engraver) we can see he saw and depicted very well the existing “Muse of Cortona”; therefore we have no reason to doubt he probably made a good and accurate image of Cleopatra’s painting as well. I would not be surprised if the painting is a fraud and a cheat of the Micheli brothers, the whole story of that painting sometimes looks like they tried to profit on the recent (at the time) revival of the encaustic technic by Caylus and make a good money on some english noble or millionaire (they did bring the painting to England on 1820s and tried hard to sell it), but anyway, this painting and the whole story is so interesting, that it is worth finding where it is.
    Cheers and congratulations,
    Eduardo Andre

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