In 1740, Philibert Orry, count of Vignory (1689-1747) and Director of the Académie Royale de Peinture, commissioned from Charles-Joseph Natoire a series of paintings illustrating the story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra to be used as modelli for tapestries to be woven by the Gobelins Manufacture.
The first of seven paintings, The entry of Mark Anthony into Ephesus, which derives from Plutarch, was presented by Natoire at the Salon in 1741, under the number 14 (now Nîmes, Musée des Beaux-Arts; exhib. cat., Nîmes, op. cit., 1998, p. 15).
This is a preparatory study for the kneeling man in the foreground, holding vine leaves and a basket of grapes; the only difference with the painting is the position of his legs. He is disguised as Bacchus, a mythological figure to whom Mark Anthony is often associated. Other preparatory studies for this painting are known. Three figure studies in black and red chalk are at the Louvre: A dancing woman with a tambourine; A young woman holding a cymbal; A seated man playing the panpipes (inv. nos. 31427, 31428 and 31429). Another study Head of a woman is at Montpellier (musée Fabre) and A man playing the triangle is in a private collection (op. cit, pp. 79-83).
In 1772, towards the end of his career when he became director of the French Académy in Rome, Natoire revisited this subject and executed an oil painting (Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum) after the full composition, and a drawing which later belonged to Jacques Petithory (La donation Jacques Petithory au musée Bonnat, Bayonne, exhib. cat., Paris, Musée du Luxembourg, 1998, no. 192, ill.). The only difference between these compositions and the painting in Nîmes concerns the woman in the foreground. In the first project she plays the cymbal, whereas in the 1772 version she is seated and feeds her child: a study in black and red chalk for this figure is at the Louvre (inv. no. 31425).
The numerous drawings that have survived are evidence of the importance that this commission held for Natoire.