Cagnacci’s erotically charged and emotionally engaging subject appealed to the Baroque imagination in poetry, theater, and painting. Taken from the ancient Greek writer Plutarch’s Lives, Cleopatra commits suicide with a viper bite following the defeat of her beloved, the Roman Mark Antony. Cagnacci’s treatment is indebted to Guido Reni, but the flagrant sensuality of her upturned eyes, flushed cheeks, and exposed breast is singular. The lethal serpent winds with unlikely elegance around her arm, the violence of its fangs hidden behind her gracefully posed hand.
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Title:The Death of Cleopatra
Artist:Guido Cagnacci (Italian, Santarcangelo di Romagna 1601–1663 Vienna)
Medium:Oil on canvas
Dimensions:37 3/8 × 29 1/2 in. (95 × 75 cm)
Credit Line:Purchase, Diane Burke Gift, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, by exchange, Friends of European Paintings Gifts, Gwynne Andrews Fund, Lila Acheson Wallace, Charles and Jessie Price, and Álvaro Saieh Bendeck Gifts, Gift and Bequest of George Blumenthal and Fletcher Fund, by exchange, and Michel David-Weill Gift, 2016
The Artist: Cagnacci was from the town of Santarcangelo—in the Romagna region of Italy, not far from Rimini. Following his local training, he spent time in the prestigious Carracci academy in Bologna, drawing from posed models, and then went to Rome in the company of one of the great masters of Baroque painting, Guercino (he was living with Guercino in 1622). There the example of Caravaggio and the practice of painting directly from the model proved transformative. Returning to Saludecio, Rimini, Forlì, and other cities in the Romagna, he painted works of such originality that even today they can cause astonishment among those familiar with Baroque painting. His is the classic case of the provincial who, after making contact with the key figures of his day, returns home and evolves his own highly personal but at the same time highly sophisticated style. A nonconformist in life as in his art, in October 1628, Cagnacci had to flee Rimini when he attempted to elope with the widow of a prominent family. He continued to have affairs and is reported to have been accompanied in his peregrinations by a woman dressed as a man. When he moved to Venice, where he is first documented in 1649, he was, again, living with his lover/model. There he specialized in single-figure, half-length compositions for the market, often featuring a female in dishabille acting the role of Cleopatra or Lucretia. He moved from Venice to Vienna (by 1660), evidently at the invitation of Archduke Leopold I, and it was there that he painted what remains one of the most individual paintings of the entire seventeenth century: The Conversion of the Magdalen, now in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. He died in Vienna.
The Picture: The subject derives from Plutarch's Lives and shows Cleopatra's suicide by an asp bite following the defeat of her beloved Mark Antony at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. and his subsequent death. The subject was popular in the seventeenth century and was notably treated by Guido Reni (Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence), whose work Cagnacci clearly knew. It is a subject that provided the kind of erotically charged as well as emotionally engaging action that appealed to the Baroque imagination, whether in poetry, theater, or painting. Shakespeare expresses the conflicted emotions found in Cagnacci’s depiction in his play Antony and Cleopatra: "The Stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, / Which hurts, and is desired." And a poem written by Antonio Bruni (1593–1635) on a depiction of Cleopatra by Guido Reni is equally pertinent (Le tre gratie, rime, Rome, 1630, p. 173): Ingenious brush, That giving life to Egypt’s Queen has made Her so alive that some before her bow: Fair monarch, not by asp but love betrayed. Love kills her. The way to give her life the painter knows: The brush breathes vital spirits in her, The serpent then upon her death bestows. Like Reni’s painting, Cagnacci’s picture is an independent work suitable for the gallery of a private collector and, in fact, we know of paintings such as this one in private collections in Venice. It has been dated to about 1645–50; if it is as late as 1650, there is the possibility that it was painted for Michiel Valenzin—a Jewish resident in Venice who owned two works by Cagnacci, a Jacob and a Cleopatra (see Stefania Mason, "Un itinerario per dipinti, disegni, stampe e qualche curiosità nelle collezioni della Venezia barocca," in Linda Borean and Stefania Mason, Il collezionismo d’arte a Venezia: il Seicento, Venice, 2007, p. 9). It may have been in Venice that the picture was sold to the 2nd or 3rd Earl of Caledon, in whose magnificent lodgings at 5 Carlton House Terrace, London, it is recorded in 1857, hanging in the drawing room between a painting by Guido Reni and a Madonna by Murillo.
What makes this artist's work—and The Met’s picture—so notable and so essential to any history of seventeenth-century painting is the sensual realism by which Cagnacci subverts the classic compositional procedures he mastered in Bologna and Rome, primarily on the example of Guido Reni. In his work the erotic element that is always present as a sublimated feature in the Renaissance tradition of the idealized female nude in the guise of Venus, Diana, Cleopatra, etc. becomes a primary, subversive, and disorienting feature, lending his paintings a startling modernity.
Cagnacci often did two variant treatments of his most successful compositions (though Salomon  has posed the question of whether a workshop may have been involved in this activity). The Met’s Cleopatra is related to a picture in the Collezioni Comunali d'Arte, Bologna, in which the same figure is posed against a patterned curtain, pulled back for theatrical effect. As noted in the catalogue of the exhibition on the artist held in 2008 in Forlì, in The Met’s painting, Cagnacci is less idealized and more sensual, and there is a greater emphasis on psychological engagement with the figure. The presentation is more intimate, less "staged."
Keith Christiansen 2016
James Du Pre Alexander, 3rd Earl of Caledon, London (until d. 1855); his son, James Alexander, 4th Earl of Caledon, London (1855–d. 1898); his son, Eric James Desmond Alexander, 5th Earl of Caledon, London (1898–1939; sale, Christie's, London, June 9, 1939, no. 32, as by Guido Reni, for £15.15 to Sabin); [Frank T. Sabin, London, from 1939]; private collection, Sweden (sold to Colnaghi); [Colnaghi, New York, until 1988; sold through Edmondo di Robilant]; private collection, Italy (1988–2014); [Fabrizio Moretti, London, 2014–16; sold to The Met]
Rimini. Museo della Città. "Guido Cagnacci," August 21–November 28, 1993, no. 18 (lent by Edmondo di Robilant, Dover Street Gallery, London).
Forlì. Musei San Domenico. "Guido Cagnacci: protagonista del Seicento tra Caravaggio e Reni," January 20–June 22, 2008, no. 70 (lent by a private collection).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "European Paintings: Recent Acquisitions 2015–16," December 12, 2016–March 26, 2017, no catalogue.
Cincinnati Art Museum. "Cagnacci: Painting Beauty and Death," March 23–July 22, 2018, unnum. brochure.
Brisbane. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. "European Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York," June 12–October 17, 2021, unnumbered cat.
Osaka. Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts. "European Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York," November 13, 2021–January 16, 2022.
Tokyo. National Art Center. "European Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York," February 9–May 30, 2022.
[Gustav Friedrich] Waagen. Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain. London, 1857, p. 150, lists it as "Cleopatra," by Guido Cagnacci, in the drawing room of the London residence of Lord Caledon; states that "the elevated forms and expression show the influence of Guido [Reni]" and calls it "particularly warm and clear in colour, and careful in execution".
Daniele Benati inGuido Cagnacci. Ed. Daniele Benati and Marco Bona Castellotti. Exh. cat., Museo della Città, Rimini. Milan, 1993, pp. 106–7, no. 18, ill. (color), compares it with another version in the Collezioni Comunali d'Arte di Palazzo d'Accursio, Bologna (no. 17), which he assigns to the late 1630s, dating The Met's picture to the following decade, close to the "Saint Anthony" in the Forlì cathedral.
Pier Giorgio Pasini. Le donne del Cagnacci. Rimini, 1993, ill. p. 26, as in a private collection, London.
Alessandro Brogi inGuido Cagnacci. Ed. Daniele Benati and Marco Bona Castellotti. Exh. cat., Museo della Città, Rimini. Milan, 1993, p. 104, under no. 17.
Daniele Benati inGuido Cagnacci: protagonista del Seicento tra Caravaggio e Reni. Ed. Daniele Benati and Antonio Paolucci. Exh. cat., Musei San Domenico, Forlì. Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, 2008, pp. 286–87, no. 70, ill. (color), dates it 1645–50.
Laura Muti in Laura Muti and Daniele De Sarno Prignano with the collaboration of Gabriello Milantoni. Guido Cagnacci: Hypóstasis. Faenza, 2009, pp. 400–402, no. 56, ill. (overall and detail), colorpl. XIX, as in a private collection; dates it 1656–57; discusses it in relation to the version in Bologna (no. 20, dated 1637–39), finding The Met's picture clearly superior.
Federico Giannini. Passione e sensualità: la pittura di Guido Cagnacci. Pozzuoli, 2009, pp. 63–64, ill. p. 103 (color), dates it about 1650, early in Cagnacci's Venetian period, calling it a variant of the Bologna picture, which he dates 1636–40.
Xavier F. Salomon. The Art of Guido Cagnacci. New York, 2016, pp. 66–68, 111 n. 125, fig. 32 (color), dates it about 1645, considering the version in Bologna possibly later and possibly by Cagnacci's workshop.
James M. Bradburne in Letizia Lodi and Lisa Hilton. The Death of Cleopatra. Exh. cat., Italian Cultural Institute New York. Milan, 2016, p. 15, colorpl. 2 [Italian ed., "La Morte di Cleopatra," 2017].
Stephan S. Wolohojian in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2014–2016." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 74 (Fall 2016), p. 40, ill. (color), states that it may have originally belonged to the Jewish collector Michiel Valenzin, Venice.
Katharine Baetjer inEuropean Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Exh. cat., Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. South Brisbane, 2021, pp. 109, 230, ill. p. 108 (color).
Max Hollein inEuropean Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Exh. cat., Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. South Brisbane, 2021, p. 16.
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