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. 

George F. Bensell's Esther Denouncing Haman, 1868

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.

George Frederick Bensell 1837–1879

Philadelphia native George Frederick Bensell studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where, in 1860, he would become one of the six founding members of the Philadelphia Sketch Club, one of the oldest existing artists' clubs in the country. A highly regarded draughtsman and painter, he became popular with wealthy clientele for his portraits, poetical genre, landscape, and historical paintings. He exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1856 until 1868 and his work can be found in important collections including the Pennsylvania Academy, the National Museum of American Art, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Germantown Historical Society.

Auction Results George Frederick Bensell