oil on canvas, 1838
French, 1798 - 1863
Cleopatra and the Peasant
Eugene Delacroix was a leader of the Romantic movement, a rebellion against
the precise forms and intellectual tone of Neo-Classical art. Romantic art
expressed intensities of emotion- fear, exultation, despair. Rich, luminous
color, vibrant brushwork, and turbulent compositions created the emotional tone
of Romantic paintings.
The Romantics found inspiration in exotic places. Here, the setting is Egypt.
Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, sits at the right in her throne. A peasant,
clutching a basket of figs, leans towards her. Amidst the plump, purple fruit in
the basket, a snake raises its head.
Delacroix's source was Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra
has vowed never to be taken to Rome as Caesar's trophy, preferring "the noble
act" of suicide. She asks if this is "the pretty worm of the Nile," whose bite
"kills and pains not." The peasant says it is, adding wryly, "Those that do die
of it seldom or never recover." His slight smile contrasts with Cleopatra's
solemn stare, as she contemplates her own death.
The painting is rich in contrasts: the queen's pale flesh and the peasant's
ruddy skin; his massive body filling the left side of the canvas, and her
smaller, vulnerable body; her garment shimmering in pinks, reds and yellows, and
his rough animal pelt in brown and black. A modern critic calls this painting "a
bold juxtaposition of the grotesque and the beautiful."
Delacroix's daring use of colors is seen here in the flash of turqoise-blue
on the underside of Cleopatra's right hand, repeated, less strongly, in the
shadows of her forearm; and in the dabs of orange-red paint for the peasant's
skin. As we move back from the painting, these colors blend into natural-looking