The Enduring Allure of a Pharaoh
George Bensell's Painting of Cleopatra
Charles F. Haseltine, scion of an old New England family and owner of the international art house Haseltine Art Galleries, was a leading representative of Bensell’s work. The present lot is mentioned in a March 11, 1870 Daily Evening Bulletin article regarding the “dispersal of the Haseltine and Bailey collections.” The author notes that the “latter half of the catalogue...includes the best pictures of the double collection” beginning with “the Philadelphia artist, George Bensell’s, interesting subject of 'Cleopatra entering her Barge'…”. The year prior, a copy of Claude Lorrain’s 1643 painting Landing of Cleopatra at Tarsus had been exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, as noted by a Daily Evening Telegraph reporter who bemoaned the lack of similar works on its walls by “Bensell, and others of our day, who have given Philadelphia art a standing...” Such an outcry very well may have been Bensell’s inspiration for the present lot. These facts, coupled with the compositional similarities with Bensell’s 1868 painting Esther Denouncing Haman, support a date of 1869.
Cleopatra’s appeal as a seductress and ally of two powerful men—Mark Antony and Julius Caesar—led to her continuing reemergence in popular culture through the centuries, from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal in the 1963 film Cleopatra. Bensell’s painting is part of a centuries-long lineage of artistic and literary tributes to the last true pharaoh of Egypt.