Beginning in the Renaissance period, the world of literature and art rejected the Christian perception of suicide as being a reprehensible act and oriented itself on those trends of classical philosophy that celebrated suicide, in certain cases, as a logical and courageous act. Starting in the 16th century, heroines beca me a popular subject of paintings and were sometimes joined together in a series of so-called donne famose (famous, heroic women).
Guido Cagnacci received his training in Bologna and Rome and had lived in
Rimini since the beginning of the 1620s. As early as 1648 he was running his
own workshop in Venice. He accepted an appointment as court painter to
Emperor Leopold I in 1660 and spent the last years of his life in Vienna.
In this painting of Cleopatra, the last of this subject in his oeuvre, he combines two conflicting artistic trends: the realistic and expressive gestures and facial expressions of the servants, some in touching grief, some in agitated observation, have been influenced by Caravaggio’s successors and juxtaposed to the classical posture of the dying Cleopatra, adopted from Guido Reni and Correggio. Equally charged with tension is the contrast between the monochromatic background and the open display of the gently lit female nudes. The deadly bite of the uraeus serpent, coiled tenderly around Cleopatra’s arm, is the focus of the servants’ attention; the view of the beholder, however, is mainly directed to the sensuality of Cleopatra’s body, set against the deep red fabric of her throne. © Cäcilia Bischoff, Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery, Vienna 2010