European Art: 17th-18th Centuries

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Suicide of Cleopatra, c. 1621

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri called Guercino

Italian, 1591-1666
Oil on canvas
46 x 36-3/4 in. (116.8 x 93.3 cm)
The Norton Simon Foundation
F.1973.30.P
© 2012 The Norton Simon Foundation

On view

Guercino gained the attention of influential patrons with his vigorous naturalism, flickering light effects, and grace of expression. He was in Rome during the brief pontificate of Gregory XV (1621-23), and there produced a number of important works, including "The Suicide of Cleopatra."

The tragic stories of the queens and heroines of antiquity were popular with Baroque painters, because they contained equal measures of drama, pathos and eroticism. From this remarkable history, Guercino focused on the single, tense moment when Cleopatra, having taken the asp from the basket of figs, is about to raise it to her breast where it will deliver the fatal bite. The dynamic chiaroscuro, supple modelling, and unusual color harmonies give his work its passionate appeal.

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