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. Continue reading


The Graces of Motherhood

As we continue cracking the code… I want to focus a little bit on context with the following example on motherhood, childhood, and the societal perception of families. Parenting is never a straightforward affair, but every society has its own ideas about how children should be raised. Not so long ago parents professed that “Children should be seen but not heard,” and considered children to be miniature adults who had merely to be reined in and constrained by social rules, but whose emotions were generally secondary. This attitude is captured in François Boucher’s The Luncheon (1739), for instance, in which aristocratic Parisian ladies take tea with their children. Boucher paid exquisite attention to the shimmering dresses, brilliant gilded accessories and rich furnishings in his painting, and the children seem to form a part of this background of possession, with their doll-like faces and perfect dress. Indeed, the disdainful look that the lady in red gives in response to her child’s inquisitive face is worth more than a thousand words.

boucher luncheon Boucher, The Luncheon, 1739

Continue reading