Faith Chisholm on Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Part of a series of new perspectives on portraiture commissioned for Archie Plus

Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Cleopatra

1875
oil on canvas
Gift of Sir Herbert Thompson 1920

I’ve met this woman before. I first saw her in another version of this painting housed at the Auckland Art Gallery. But their one is smaller, with Cleopatra looking coyer, her cheeks flushed. It’s almost saccharine. This portrait, painted earlier, has an edge of danger the other one lacks. The tension in the neck and the smouldering glance seems more befitting of a woman with murderous inclinations.

Cleopatra has of course been portrayed countless times in literature, paint, stone, metal, theatre and film – a person made legend. In Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s renditions, an unnamed model plays the long-dead queen of Egypt as a seductress draped in leopard skin. His idea of Cleopatra’s power lay primarily in her sexual allure. It’s a reminder that the male gaze has a lot to answer for.

The elliptical framing draws us in to what feels like a private, almost peepshow-like, view. I wonder what Alma-Tadema’s intention was in making voyeurs of us all. Was he seeking to humanise his subject, or bring her down a peg or two? And what of the model, how did she feel to be cast as Shakespeare’s ‘Egyptian dish’? Would she have felt empowered, or objectified? If she could turn to speak to us, what would she say?

Faith Chisholm, Gallery editor and homesick New Zealander

View this work and more as part of the Gallery’s collection online