Cleopatra is one of history’s most alluring and mysterious figures. The original concept behind this painting, one of only a small handful of illustrated National Geographic covers, was to somehow express the myth of Cleopatra conceptually and avoid the constraints and difficulties inherent in being specific. With very little visual evidence to build upon, we wanted to show both her strength and character while at the same time evoking the mystery that has become synonymous with her legend and name. Although small pieces have surfaced over the years that tell us a little of what she may have looked like, there certainly wasn’t enough to actually recreate an accurate portrait. This was actually quire liberating, in that I was able to paint an image rooted more in an emotional quality than attempt to portray a single individual.
Although we planned to obscure her face behind the type from the beginning, I painted her head in its entirety. The jewelry references two popular myths that have surrounded Cleopatra for centuries: That of her death, by self inflicted snake bite, and the pearl which she supposedly dissolved in wine as a testament to her wealth and power. The structure and styling of the jewellery was based on designs present during the time of her reign, gathered for me by National Geographic’s excellent researchers. Although the image is a fictional one, the detail and surface nuance felt very important. No such statue exists, but the sense that one could, or did, I think lends the image a quality that it would otherwise lack.
Cleopatra VII by Sam Weber