American Egyptomania Search

Cleopatra Before Caesar

Earl Shinn [Edward Strahan], Gerome: A Collection of the Works of J.L. Gerome in One Hundred Photogravures (New York: Samuel L. Hall, 1881), Volume 10, Plate 6

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several occasions to wreak itself on expression, had denounced the London drama-stealers for their "art with poisonous honey stolen from France." Mr. Browning finds, in this piece of French art, no poison. He uses the strange and most original figure of the "Ptole maic witch," as he calls her, for a type of the man-subjugator. The first part of his description, telling of the jewelled bands which "capture" the "orbs of health," refers to the bretelles, or stolae, which are found on many mummies, and by which Gerome, introducing them for the first time into painting, contrives an Egyptian-like straightness for a live torso, really modelled realistically under those confining conditions.

"See, Cleopatra! bared, the entire and sinuous wealth O' the shining shape ; each orb of indolent ripe health Captured, just where it finds a fellow orb as fine I' the body ; traced about by jewels which outline, Fire frame, and keep distinct perfections lest they melt To soft smooth unity ere half their hold be felt: Yet, o'er that white and wonder, a soul's predominance I' the head so high and haught, except one thievish glance From back of oblong eye, intent to count the slain."

Robert Browning, idling past Gambart's London shop, doubtless recognized that in the matter of grasping his subject historically—psy- chologically—the painter manifests a sort of clairvoyance, as so often before. The girl-queen, appealing to Caesar against her brother and hus- band, causes her house-steward, Apollodoros, to carry her in a roll of tapestry right into the Alexandrian palace of the Ptolemies, now occu- pied by the Roman dictator. The stout slave clears the drapery with a single gesture, and crouches motionless, Cleopatra trusting her balance to his support with one royal knuckle, knowing that her chattel will not stir until released. Her insolent reliance on his fixity in so critical a posture, is discerned by the painter with a dramatist's best insight his secretaries those commentaries which he is soon to save from the Canopus, swimming for life, sword in teeth and papyrus in hand. The perfectly Egyptian character of the new Ptolemaic palace is entirely —it is so Eastern, so despotic. In the background Caesar dictates to probable, as well as the Egyptian harness assumed by the queen. We know that Cleopatra dressed as Isis, and the inscriptions, cartouches, and coffins of the Ptolemies of the Nile all show an almost exag- gerated addiction to Egyptian bric-a-brac.

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