Michel Corneille I (French, 1602–1664)
Cleopatra and the Asp
Circa 1650–1660
Oil on canvas, 55 1/2 x 71 5/8 inches
Courtesy of Portland Art Museum;
gift of the Dr. Henry Victor Adix, Jr., Trust.

A recently identified work by a French Royal Academy founder, Cleopatra and the Asp by Michel Corneille I, embodies the ideals of French classicism and its preoccupation with history painting. In an oval composition, monumental figures play out a dramatic moment in classical history, the parable of moral fortitude as Cleopatra chooses the poisonous serpent and death over surrender to her new Roman masters.

Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, consulting curator of European Art at the Portland Art Museum, and her husband, art dealer Gerald G. Stiebel, spotted this painting in the Parisian gallery of Eric Coatalem. Coatalem had just acquired the picture for inventory and had identified the unsigned work from an engraving done by the artist’s son, Michel Corneille II (1642–1708). Immediately excited to have found a previously unknown and important French academic work, Hunter-Steibel recognized the Corneille’s significance in her development of an upcoming traveling exhibition of seventeenth-century French paintings drawn from a consortium of French and American museums (FRAME). Now “the newly discovered Corneille puts the Portland Art Museum on the cutting edge of seventeenth-century art scholarship, so to speak,” says Hunter-Steibel.