Pliny relates in his Natural History how Cleopatra wagered with Antony that she could give a banquet costing ten sesterces. To prove it she dissolved one of her large pearl earrings in vinegar and drank the liquid. Jan Steen presents the story as if it were being performed on the stage, highlighting the theatrical character with a red curtain and lively gestures. He depicts the pinnacle of the episode: the moment when Cleopatra empties her glass, holding her second pearl ready to dissolve it too, while Antony looks at her with a bewildered expression on his face. A page and a warrior watch the spectacle from behind the lavishly laid table.
This late painting, probably dating to the mid-1670s, is a wonderful example of Steen’s idiosyncratic approach to themes from the Bible, mythology or, in this case, from Roman history. Steen could have known the tale through a variety of sources such as a play of around 1606 by Willem van Nieuwelandt or another play translated from the French by Dieverina van Kouwenhoven, published in Amsterdam in 1669. A Dutch translation of Pliny had appeared in 1662. The most likely source, however, would be the popular writer Jacob Cats, who describes the scene in great detail in his Trouringh of 1637. In line with Cats, Steen interprets the story as a fable of vanity told humorously. The glass orb under Cleopatra’s left foot is nothing less than a vanitas attribute that renders the Egyptian queen a true personification of idleness. The enormous peacock pie on the table also imbues the scene with moral undertones, since this bird was a traditional symbol of Superbia, the vice of pride.
Steen was however less attracted to the theme because of its intrinsic moral than for the possibilities it provided him in the depiction of contrasting emotions – Cleopatra’s triumphant attitude and Antony’s reaction when he looses the wager - and the lavish, exotic setting that the story requires. Steen painted this theme at least four times, the earliest dated being of 1667 (Göttingen, University Museum). Jan Steen’s largest treatment of the subject with the Rijksdienst voor Cultureel Erfgoed is undated. In 1927 the former director of the Rijksmuseum Frederik Schmidt Degener aptly summarized the powerful qualities of this painting in words that also apply to our painting: “Steen’s genial lightness of touch infused the heaviness of the subject. He spiced his story with that fresh vulgarity which makes him so attractive”. In spite of the panel’s small dimensions Steen achieved a lively and rich effect and the joy of painting is evident in the many highlights on the queen’s extensive jewellery and the many virtuoso passages, such as Cleopatra’s silk satin dress.