Augustus and Cleopatra, c. 1630-1650
Unknown (Italian - 17th century)
oil on canvas
145 x 195.2 cm
National Gallery of Canada (no. 6092)
The defeated Cleopatra pleads with Augustus for mercy. Augustus, who holds a sword to demonstrate his power, rejects her appeal; rather than face humiliation, she will soon kill herself. The unknown painter, who likely worked in Naples, looked to Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) as a model, famed for both the clarity of his paintings and his ability to create a believable and compelling image of the ancient world. This scene is staged carefully: Cleopatra and her frightened maids are contrasted with the victorious soldiers, and the figures’ emotions and thoughts are easily read in their gestures and expressions. The architectural setting – the rhythm of columns – also contributes to the effect, drawing our attention to Cleopatra.