Argunov – “Dying Cleopatra”

“Dying Cleopatra” is the first work in the history of Russian painting, dedicated to the figure of the ancient era, rich in great victories and great defeats. The painting captures an episode of the tragic death of the captivating Egyptian queen.

According to one version, Cleopatra, the legendary beauty and wise ruler, having learned that she must submit to Octavian and become a prisoner of his throne, committed suicide in her boudoir. Death occurred from the bite of a poisonous snake, which was carried into the chambers by a servant.

The famous figure was painted in the manner of a bust image, unusual for that time. Until this moment, such a strong and unusual angle had been used only once – in the work “Peter I on his deathbed”. The queen is captured reclining with her head thrown back. Her gaze, directed upward, expresses suffering, bitterness and despair.

The nude body is painted with gentle, delicate strokes that perfectly convey the aristocratic pale, translucent skin. An insidious snake lurked below the chest – the messenger of imminent death. Against a dark background, Cleopatra seems to radiate an inner light, she seems soulful and unattainable. Her neat curls are beautifully decorated with pearls and fresh flowers. The image turned out to be refined and touching.

Despite the high tragedy of the plot, the picture is very sensual and intimate, not alien to a certain eroticism. These features indicate the then popular Rococo painting style. Soft, cool, harmonious shades, beautiful contrast of a dark background and luminous, delicate skin, elegance and gravity – all make the canvas attractive to the eye.

“Dying Cleopatra” is exhibited at the Tretyakov Gallery and is a fine example of the early work of Ivan Petrovich Argunov. His artistic style rapidly acquired new features, making his subsequent works extremely different from this canvas.

Year of painting: 1750.

Dimensions of the painting: 56.7 x 42.5 cm.

Material: canvas.

Writing technique: oil.

Genre: portrait.

Style: romanticism.

Gallery: State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

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