Cleopatra and the asp

Cleopatra and the asp
John Edward Poynter (1836-1919)
BORGM 01751
Image © Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum


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Cleopatra and the asp

Poynter was well known for his large historical paintings. He left school early for health reasons spending winters in Madeira and Rome. In 1853 he met the artist Frederick Leighton in Rome who made a great impression on the 17-year-old Poynter. On his return to London, he studied at the Royal Academy Schools and then in Paris with classicist painter Charles Gleyre.

Poynter shows Queen Cleopatra looking conflicted with her dark thoughts.  Mark Anthony has committed suicide following the defeat of his army by Octavian, then Cleopatra’s suicide.  Poynter shows her crumbling slowly and thoughtfully as befits a woman who had ruled a strong country. The ancient sources, particularly the Roman ones, agree that Cleopatra killed herself by inducing an asp (Egyptian cobra) to bite her. Recent historians have challenged this story declaring that the Queen had been poisoned and died from drinking a mixture of poisons.

In 1866 Poynter married the famous beauty Agnes MacDonald. Her sister Georgiana married the artist Edward Burne-Jones. A sister Alice was the mother of Rudyard Kipling; and her sister Louisa was the mother of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Poynter held several official posts: first Slade Professor, University College London (1871-1875), Principal of the National Art Training School (1875-1881), Director of the National Gallery (1894-1904), elected a Royal Academician in 1876, President of the Royal Academy (1896-1918), given a Knighthood in 1896 and created a Baronet in 1902.


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