Famed for her sexual allure and cunning intelligence, Cleopatra has fascinated generations of admirers. She was the last Queen of Egypt, a Ptolemeic Pharaoh, who bore Julius Ceasar a son, and became the lover of Mark Anthony in order to protect the interests of her country in the face of an all-powerful Roman Empire. Once Mark Anthony had been defeated at the battle of Actium (30 B.C.), and fallen on his sword, she herself commited suicide to avoid capture by Octavian. An asp, or Egyptian cobra, was smuggled to her in a basket of figs and she died from its bite. According to Egyptian legend, death from snakebite ensured immortality. The courage involved in her suicide impressed many, and Arthur has appended to his title well known thoughts of the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1624): 'I do not believe that any man fears to be dead, but only the stroke of death'.
Arthur's representation is typical of the exoticism found in much fin-de-siècle art. Cleopatra is draped in the most diaphanous of materials, and expires in a haze of incense on a bed inlaid with semi-precious stones and strewn with tiger skins and shawls. Arthur may have found his inspiration from the set of Cléopâtre, written by Sardou in 1890, in which Sarah Bernhardt took the title role. The subject of the picture was undoubtedly a vehicle for him to paint a reclining female nude, for his other classical pieces, the Roman Lucrece, (R.A., 1893) and Greek The Sacrifice of Iphigenia (R.A., 1895), are in the same vein. Arthur lived at 47 Bedford Square, a stone's throw from the British Museum, where he no doubt went to look for inspiration, and ensure the historical accuracy of his depictions. Another of his Egyptian subjects, Joseph interpreting Pharoah's Dream, with a similar Egyptian style frame, was sold at Christie's on 25 October 1991, (£40,000) (see fig 1).