From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Cleopatra VII Philopator (Late 69 BC – August 12, 30 BC) was the last person to rule Egypt as an Egyptian pharaoh – after she died, Egypt became a Roman province. She had love affairs with Gaius Julius Caesar and Mark Antony(see Antony and Cleopatra). After Antony and Cleopatra were defeated by their rival Augustus), Cleopatra committed suicide, the traditional date being 12 August 30 BC, allegedly by means of an asp bite.
Character and cultural depictions
Cleopatra was regarded as a great beauty, even in the ancient world. In his Life of Antony, Plutarch remarks that "judging by the proofs which she had had before this of the effect of her beauty upon Caius Caesar and Gnaeus the son of Pompey, she had hopes that she would more easily bring Antony to her feet. For Caesar and Pompey had known her when she was still a girl and inexperienced in affairs, but she was going to visit Antony at the very time when women have the most brilliant beauty". Later in the work, however, Plutarch indicates that "her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her." Rather, what ultimately made Cleopatra attractive were her wit, charm and "sweetness in the tones of her voice."
Cassius Dio also spoke of Cleopatra's allure: "For she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking; she also possessed a most charming voice and knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to every one. Being brilliant to look upon and to listen to, with the power to subjugate every one, even a love-sated man already past his prime, she thought that it would be in keeping with her role to meet Caesar, and she reposed in her beauty all her claims to the throne."
These accounts influenced later cultural depictions of Cleopatra, which typically present her using her charms to influence the most powerful men in the Western world.
Her legacy survives in numerous works of art and the many dramatizations of her story in literature, (e.g. Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Bernard Shaw's Caesar & Cleopatra) film, and television. (e.g. Elizabeth Taylor's famous depiction in Cleopatra, and the BBC/HBO co-production Rome)
In most depictions, Cleopatra is put forward as a great beauty and her successive conquests of the world's most powerful men is taken to be proof of her aesthetic and sexual appeal. Whether or not she would have been considered beautiful by current standards is unknown, but clearly she was appealing by the standards of her time. In his Pensées, philosopher Blaise Pascal contends that Cleopatra's classically beautiful profile changed world history: "Cleopatra's nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed."
Her suicide in visual art
Beginning with the Renaissance and continuing into later centuries individual artists, as well as artistic movements (e.g. Romanticism, Decandatism), have demonstrated a veritable passion for and derived much inspiration from Cleopatra's suicide; among the most well known pictorial iterations of Cleopatra's suicide are Cagnacci's Death of Cleopatra (1658) and Rixens's work of the same name (1874). A work that may have inspired Rixen's painting is Gautier's story Une Nuit de Cléopâtre (1838), which includes a fantastic—and an undisguisedly fetishistic—description of the Egyptian queen's body post-mortem. Other renditions include paintings by Reginald Arthur, Augustin Hirschvogel, the aforementioned Guido Cagnacci, Johann Liss, John William Waterhouse and Jean-André Rixens.