The French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix painted the beautiful and vivid “Cleopatra and the Peasant” in 1838. This impressive piece of art draws the viewers’ attention through its superb style, choice of vibrant colors, and its emotional tone. Paul Valéry once
said, “The veritable tradition in great things is not to repeat what others have done, but to rediscover the spirit that created these great things.” In his masterpiece, Eugène Delacroix finds inspiration in William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, and uses this prototype to depict Act IV, Scene II. The motivations of the characters in Shakespeare’s play are parallel to the motivations of the two figures in Delacroix’s Cleopatra and the Peasant. Not only does the play influence Delacroix’s artistic style, but it shapes the painting itself (Johnson 81).
The late 1800s brought about a new age of art as well as a new Romantic attitude. It started as an artistic and intellectual movement that emphasized a rebellion against established values such as social order and religion. Romanticism exalted individualism, imagination, and emotions – emotion over reason and senses over intellect. Artists of the time, including Eugène Delacroix, enjoyed depicting the extreme (Athanassoglou-Kallmyer 62-63). Whether it be the heroes of ancient Greek myths, the remote passage of St. Gothard, or the noble Washington as he crossed the Delaware, Romanticism depicted what ordinary people only dared to imagine. In Delacroix’s Cleopatra and the Peasant, the viewer observes the sense of wonder that denotes a painting of the Romantic era (Trapp 338).
Delacroix’s artwork, similarly to Shakespeare’s, first draws the audience’s attention to Cleopatra. When viewing Delacroix’s Cleopatra and the Peasant, the eye instantly falls upon the beautiful, white face of the queen. Her pristine skin illuminates the chamber in which she sits and her jewelry sparkles brilliantly. Luxurious jewels adorn her right arm, her neck and her crown, reinforcing the contrast with her pale flesh as well as giving away her royal status. Delacroix immediately bestows upon her an almost immortal persona with her radiance and extensive signs of wealth. Shakespeare paints a similar picture of the fair queen within his play. The audience first sees Cleopatra in her Alexandrian Palace, as eunuchs fan her and her court stands around her. Immediately Shakespeare establishes her nobility and her importance. To Antony, she is worth his reputation; she is worth everything he owns. He risks his country, his name, and his pride for her love. Cleopatra’s beauty and sexuality, which, as Enobarbus points out in his famous description of her in Act II, scene II, is awe-inspiring.
However, Cleopatra, captured by the Romans, faces humiliation, degradation, and belittlement as she sits in her chamber. Her love, Antony, has fallen at the hand of Caesar, while she, his beautiful wife, waits captive. The Romans plan to parade her through their streets, destroying the status she has held for so long, and to perform a play about her in which Cleopatra will be played by a young boy, belittling her royally (Shakespeare 133). Above all else, her lover has been killed; she has a choice to make. This ambiguity between a life of humiliation and death is what Delacroix’s has tried to depict. At second glance of his painting, the viewer notices that darkness exists there. Shadowed, her most beautiful feature contrasts her glow, suddenly changing the once-noble gaze to an ominous stare. Focusing on no object in particular, Cleopatra instills worry in her viewer’s heart. A looming darkness made up of blacks, browns, and tans forces her to the left side of her ornate chair. As she rests on her right arm, Cleopatra beckons the audience to discover the motivation for the sudden sense of doom.
The eye travels left to the burly figure serving his queen. A male servant stands, slouched with a basket in hand. One first notices the contrast in his darkened face. An unrestrained beard provides an unbounded masculinity. Dark, monstrous muscles and huge, knotty hands add to his manliness. His rough face casts shadows over his jagged collarbone and dirty fingernails. Where Cleopatra possesses light pinks and blues to highlight her skin, this peasant possesses red. In every corner of his body, Delacroix uses shades of red and burgundy to delineate and elucidate. He wears a red garment about his waist and a rugged leopard skin over his shoulder, concealing the basket he presents to the queen. Interestingly, in the play, the peasant’s name is Clown. When one thinks of a clown, a sense of exaggeration comes to mind. Delacroix’s character definitely possesses embellished characteristics. He brings comfort to his queen, and this is apparent in his stance and smile.
A closer look at the peasant’s load reveals the image of a snake nested in the basket of fig-leaves and fruit, raising her head between the man’s muscular right arm and his spotted pelt. The snake’s writhing form seems to be the only moving object in the painting and together with its green and yellow scales make it the painting’s most realistic element. Once the snake’s presence is noted, the painting has new significance. It becomes evident that Cleopatra’s face is turned towards the basket of figs and her solemn facial expression is probably influenced by the presence of the snake. Nevertheless, the peasant’s smile now looks somehow inviting and it creates the impression that he is offering the basket of figs to Cleopatra. Yet, despite the unusual offer, the Egyptian queen’s expression does not show any trace of fear.
Shakespeare writes a brief scene between the queen and Clown which clarifies that the “pretty worm of Nilus” has a bite from which those bitten “seldom or never recover” (134). As soon as Clown convinces Cleopatra of its certain danger, she sends him out. She has the information she needs; her plan is set. Before the servant leaves the chamber, he emphasizes the snake’s power, “Look you, the worm is not to be trusted but in the keeping of wise people, for indeed there is no goodness in the worm” (135). Still Cleopatra bids him leave. On his exit, the peasant wishes the queen the “joy o’ th’ worm” (135). This final comment adds just the right amount of irony to the entire situation, and the viewer can detect this irony in the peasant’s strange stare.
Stepping back and viewing Delacroix’s piece as a whole with a vague sense of what is about to take place, a viewer notices small details that fortify his dark hypothesis. Elements such as the dirt under the man’s fingernails, the individual fingerprints, and the folds of skin above his knuckles become more apparent and lucid the closer they are to the snake. The snake appears to be highlighted by detail. More symbolically, the peasant’s left hand is uncovering the basket, and above this hand, the dark leopard skin folds over to reveal perfect whiteness. This portion of the fur is the lightest, smoothest feature on the left side of the painting, luring the woman. The queen cowers from the darkness behind her denoting the terrible events which have occurred, and that she is turning to her only means of escape.
To highlight the themes of his work, Delacroix employs a great deal of contrast in his painting. The space behind Cleopatra and the peasant is entirely painted in dark colors. By concealing any details about the background, the artist emphasizes the significance of this moment between Cleopatra and the peasant. The peasant wears a slight smile that contrasts with the woman’s solemn stare. The clear size contrast between the figures creates an intense feeling and gives the impression of uncertainty. The queen, the image of paramount femininity, chooses death over a darkened life while his peasant, a seemingly brutish juggernaut, offers her a simplistic solution. Delacroix contrasts beauty and ugliness, illustrating the juxtaposition of the sublime and the grotesque. In between the two he places that which is deadly, symbolically contrasting life and death in the mind of the entranced Cleopatra, whose next move is imminent. In Shakespeare’s writings, as Cleopatra applies the asp to her bosom she cries to the guard, “Peace, peace! Do you not see my baby at my breast, that sucks the nurse asleep?” She dies instantly (Shakespeare 150).
The two contrary individuals create a balanced irony as the eye races over their chamber. Cleopatra and the Peasant leads us to discover the complexities Delacroix so ingeniously hid in the work and their correlation to Shakespeare’s play. Delacroix’s subtle clues, hidden in the delicate details not only lead the viewer to the source of Cleopatra’s suffering, but also to the beauty and mystery behind her actions. Delacroix’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s play contains a level of genius that is apparent through his style, rich, luminous color, vibrant brushwork, and turbulent composition that nevertheless contribute to the intense emotional tone of the painting. After viewing Cleopatra and the Peasant one possesses a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s tone as well as his themes of honor, reason, and emotion.
Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Nina Maria. Eugène Delacroix: Prints, Politics and
Satire (1814-1822). New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
Johnson, Lee. The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix: A Critical Catalogue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Shakespeare, William. Anthony and Cleopatra. Ed. A.R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin Books , 1999.
Trapp, Frank Alexander. The Attainment of Delacroix. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1970.