When the Roman general Mark Antony (ca. 83–30 B.C.) met the Egyptian princess Cleopatra (Cleopatra VII Philopator, 69–30 B.C.) in the city of Tarsus in the year 41 B.C., he immediately succumbed to her charms. Cleopatra, who had previously been the lover of Julius Caesar, hoped that her relationship with Antony would strengthen her power in her own country. The couple spent a winter in Alexandria, wallowing in luxury and sensual pleasures, after which Mark Antony continued his military campaign. When they renewed their relationship several years later—Cleopatra had meanwhile given birth to twins—they assumed regal status. In 31 B.C. the true ruler of Rome, Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), defeated the armies of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium on the west coast of Greece. After the battle Antony and Cleopatra returned to Alexandria, where Antony subsequently attempted to commit suicide, eventually dying in Cleopatra’s lap. Cleopatra, who had shut herself into the tomb she had had built for herself, committed suicide by means of the poisonous snake she had hidden in a basket of figs. The story of these lovers, first recorded by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia (book 9, 58:119–21), inspired many paintings, plays, and poems by William Shakespeare, Jacob Cats, and George Bernard Shaw, among others, and of course the famous film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
A favorite scene for artists was the legendary episode of the wager between the two lovers, who vied with each other to stage the most sumptuous banquet. After an extremely lavish meal at Mark Antony’s expense, Cleopatra boasted that she could lay a banquet of much greater extravagance. On this occasion she dissolved one of her enormous pearl earrings in an acidic substance mixed with wine.1 When she was on the point of dissolving the other earring too, Mark Antony managed to stop her, and it is this moment that Jan Steen has depicted in the Leiden Collection painting.
We see Cleopatra about to present her empty glass to a kneeling servant so that the second pearl, which she holds in her right hand, can be subjected to the same treatment as the first, and Mark Antony leaning across the table to intervene. The table is placed in the great hall of a palace: more rooms are visible at the left behind a high balustrade, while, at the right, an open arcade affords a view of a hilly landscape. The room has a splendid tiled floor, rendered in strict perspective with the vanishing point at the doorway beneath the balustrade. The silver dish of sumptuous fruit in the foreground possibly alludes to the death of Cleopatra—painters sometimes depicted the venomous snake (or snakes) emerging from a basket of assorted fruit rather than a basket of figs.2
Steen distributed the rest of the company across the entire breadth of the middle ground, but gave particular emphasis to a dwarf-like court jester and a child who tugs at his white scarf. The jester holds a knife in his right hand and in his left a piece of roast meat, which he tries to keep out of reach of a small dog. As usual, the jester turns the world upside-down. By thrusting his knife forward he undoubtedly mocks Mark Antony’s lecherous desires. In a more general sense, however, the fool is a reference to the absurdity of Antony and Cleopatra’s extravagant wastefulness.3 The ridiculous reversal is nicely expressed in the description of the painting in Jacobus Viet’s 1774 sale catalogue, where the piece of roast meat in the fool’s hand is called a hammehieltje.4 This term undoubtedly alludes to the saying “hij kluift het hieltje van de ham” (he gnaws on the heel of the ham), meaning he tries to get every last piece of meat off the bone. In other words, he has run out of money and must savor every scrap.5 The fool thus mocks the fickleness of fate.
Seated at the table on the right is a man who tries to catch the viewer’s eye as he cleans his teeth with a knife. Across from him sits a man wearing a plumed cap who gestures toward the protagonists: he is presumably Lucius Munatius Plancus, proconsul of Asia and skillful survivor of political turmoil, whom the couple had chosen to adjudicate their wager. He decrees that Mark Antony has already lost his bet with the clever Cleopatra, and declares it unnecessary to dissolve the second pearl.
The story of Antony and Cleopatra was seen in the seventeenth century mainly as a cautionary tale, a warning against unnecessary extravagance. But another interpretation—and presumably the one Jan Steen sought to emphasize—is that of a powerful man (Mark Antony) who is led by a woman’s sultry gaze to neglect his soldierly duties. In this respect the painting recalls the words of William Shakespeare, “and you shall see in him / The triple pillar of the world transform’d / Into a strumpet’s fool.”6 No matter how apt these words, it is unlikely that Steen knew them.7 Nor is it easy to demonstrate his familiarity with the two Dutch plays about these legendary lovers.8
The most probable literary source for Steen, however, was not a text specifically about these legendary lovers, but rather one that dwelt more broadly on the nature of human relationships: Trouringh, which the popular author Jacob Cats (1577–1660) first published in 1637.9 Near the beginning of this 800-line poem, Cats writes on the theme of a soldier who neglects his duties because of the allure of feminine beauty: “Then he whose work was so courageously begun / Was by a woman’s wiles completely overcome”; and “He who is a soldier will one day, alas, be captured / Not in open battle, but by blushing cheeks enraptured, / Not in single combat, but by seeing a sweet visage, / Not by strong and mighty lords, but by seductive language.”10 The motif of the soldier who becomes distracted from his duties occurs in a number of Steen’s paintings, including his genre scenes, as, for example, his Card Players (fig 1), where a soldier loses his sword to a cheating female player.11 Indeed, the theme of a soldier who disregards his duty by idling, sleeping, or wiling away his time in female company occurs frequently in seventeenth-century Dutch painting—in the work of such artists as Nicolaes Maes (1634–93), Gerard ter Borch (1617–81), and Pieter de Hooch (1629–84).12
Jan Steen portrayed the banquet of Anthony and Cleopatra four times. Two paintings display relatively simple compositions more or less mirror images of one another. Both show Cleopatra placing her left foot on a sphere, in all likelihood a reference to the vicissitudes of life. The sketchier of the two, a painting in a private collection, is probably Steen’s first rendering of this subject.13 The other piece, in Göttingen, followed soon after and is dated 1667 (fig 2).14 The placement of the table in the Göttingen work is similar to that in the Leiden Collection painting, indicating that it was here that Steen developed his ideas for that composition. A further possible pictorial source for the Leiden Collection painting, as first noted by Alfred Heppner, is a composition by Pieter Quast (1606–47) portraying the dramatic moment in which Paris shoots Achilles in the heel, known today through a drawing dated 1645 (fig 3).15 Heppner noted the close correspondence between the figure of Achilles in Quast’s drawing and that of Mark Antony in Steen’s painting.
The artist’s most detailed portrayal of the subject is his Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra of ca. 1667/70, a painting nearly two meters wide, in the possession of the Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency (Rijksdienst voor Cultureel Erfgoed) (fig 4).16 In that painting Steen strongly emphasizes the prodigality that characterizes the event. Jacob Cats’s poem states that Cleopatra was in the habit of giving the precious decorations at her banquets to her guests. Even costly furnishings and tapestries were used only once.17 Steen portrayed the scene in a way that affords a good view of earthenware, chairs, a chintz tablecloth, and a costly Persian rug. The role of the fool who mocks wasteful behavior is played here by Jan Steen himself, who glances laughingly at the viewer from his place at the right.
Chronologically, the rendering of the story in the Leiden Collection comes last in Steen’s career. The somewhat round face of Cleopatra clearly places the painting among the master’s late works. Moreover, in his later work Steen depicted fewer and fewer still life details, which may be one reason that his earlier works are generally more appreciated by art lovers. Yet the large dish of fruit in the foreground and the splendid depiction of the furniture and objects such as Antony’s helmet ensure that this painting is not lacking in arresting details.
Baruch Kirschenbaum doubted the authenticity of this work, but there is no reason for doing so.18 One or two background figures, particularly the soldier rushing onto the scene in the left background, seem not to be by Steen’s hand, but his later paintings generally include an occasional weak passage. With regard to other details, such as the bald, corpulent man to the right behind Cleopatra and the execution of the background, this is completely characteristic of the work of the master. In general the concentration on the essential elements of the story is an aspect that can be observed in other work from Steen’s last years, such as Lazarus and the Rich Man (JS-106). Therefore, a date of around 1673–75 seems most likely for Steen’s compelling image of this fascinating episode from Roman history.