A Dutch Cleopatra

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as Antony and Cleopatra, from the film Cleopatra (photo courtesy of Fox entertainment)

Remember when I mentioned that the same story can be presented in many different ways based on the artist’s formal and narrative choices? Well let’s take a look at this unusual example…

Antony and Cleopatra were two great historical figures from Classical antiquity, and their legendary love story has inspired countless paintings, poems, and films. Over the centuries, their story has adopted many symbolic meanings as both a scandalous, immoral love affair and a passionate, poetic expression of devoted love (think of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Richard Burton’s classic yet controversial rendition of Cleopatra…).But various elements of their story have also been transformed in surprising pictorial representations such as Jan de Bray’s portrait historié, the Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra, in which the painter presents a portrait of his parents in the guise of Antony and Cleopatra surrounded by their family.

In order to understand this unusual choice of imagery, let’s first explore the story of Cleopatra’s famous banquet (see page 10 of this interesting paper). As told by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, Cleopatra claimed that she could spend the greatest fortune on a single meal, and a doubtful but curious Antony took up the wager. At first, Cleopatra served a standard feast, but nearing the end of the dinner she revealed a cunning surprise. According to Pliny, she removed one of her giant, priceless pearl earrings and dissolved it in a glass of strong vinegar, which she drank to win the bet against Antony.

Jan de Bray, The Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra, 1652 (Image (c) Web Gallery of Art)

This story, especially in the words of Pliny, seems to convey “wasteful extravagance” rather than exemplary virtue and family values. But in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century, the popular author and moralist Jacob Cats published a manual on marriage and family life that turned Cleopatra’s feast into a display of marital fidelity. At this time, the purity of a pearl symbolized chastity and virginity, and a pearl was a treasure of great worth. De Bray thus chose this version of the story to portray his family as both virtuous and prosperous. In De Bray’s family portrait, his mother is shown holding the pearl earring in the center of the composition, placing emphasis on the significance of the “pearl of great prize.” De Bray’s father sits beside her in the guise of Antony, wearing the laurels as a symbol of Roman antiquity as well as his courage and success as head of the household (and a popular painter in his own right). Although they are seated at a table, very little food is visible. Instead, the feast seems to consist of all of the children and relatives who surround them, thus demonstrating that family is their greatest treasure. While this painting certainly departs from the original meaning of Pliny’s tale, it demonstrates how the passage of time and cultural differences can transform a tale of glamorous luxury into a symbol of exemplary virtue.

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4 thoughts on “A Dutch Cleopatra

  1. I hadn’t heard the story about Cleopatra’s bet with Antony and how she won it. It’s fascinating how stories can be interpreted differently in different cultures, especially when it comes to tragic love stories in history and literature (I can’t help but think of how people interpret Romeo and Juliet differently too).

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    • Definitely! I will actually be posting more examples of this type of comparison, especially between works of art from different time periods, because it really highlights the social and cultural changes in people’s attitudes to the same story.

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  2. It is interesting to me that you mention the “passage of time”, and it leaves me wondering what is going on in this passage. For instance, I am curious as to how our thinking about and mental conceptualization of the time dimension plays a role in the passing-on of certain values from generation to generation as opposed to others, depicted in turn through various cultural works of art. Are there certain conceptions of time implicitly or explicitly encoded within artworks that we might want to encourage or avoid? Good post!

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    • Thanks! You are very right in paying attention to the time dimension in relation to art, it really is crucial to understanding many pieces. Overall, most art is consciously influenced by art that came before it, as artists grow up in a particular artistic culture but also learn about art through the ages. Artists also make many references to past works both positively and negatively, as a form of praise or criticism. Even further, the same work of art takes on different meanings over time based on its audience. I think this is a natural consequence of releasing a work of art for public appreciation, and it is definitely a concept that we have to keep in mind when studying art.
      I can’t properly do this concept justice in a short comment, but I actually may write a post on this soon, thanks for highlighting this idea!

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