The Colours of ANTONY and CLEOPATRA

ANTONY and CLEOPATRA by Francesca Howard, acrylic on canvas, 3'11" x 4'7'' - 120 x 140cm, £700.00
ANTONY and CLEOPATRA by Francesca Howard, acrylic on canvas, 3’11’ ‘x 4’7” – 120 cm x 140 cm, £700.00


‘If Romeo and Juliet is a play of young love, Antony and Cleopatra is a play of mature passion.  It addresses a series of oppositions – male/female, desire/duty, love/war, East/West and, most powerfully, Egypt and Rome.  The action moves freely across the whole of the Mediterranean world.’  so says the RSC website.

I chose this play by Shakespeare as a subject for one of my paintings for an exhibition at the Astor Theatre in Deal, Kent in May 2015.  The paintings were inspired by specific works of theatre and opera.  see the exhibition here


So where to start in creating a painting with the intensely passionate themes of ‘Antony and Cleopatra‘? 

Well, me being me, I started with the colours:

Turquoise – the Mediterranean; the centre of the Roman Empire.

ANTONY and CLEOPATRA - detail, The Mediterranean as The Eye of Horus
ANTONY and CLEOPATRA – detail, The Mediterranean as The Eye of Horus


The Eye of Horus
The Eye of Horus

However, as the painting progressed, the outline of the turquoise Mediterranean morphed (as paintings are wont to do) into the The Eye of Horus, the Ancient Egyptian symbol of protection, royal power and good health.

Parts of the shore of the Mediterranean survived the morphing, such as the outline of Italy – the country that controlled the known world at the time the play is set.



Gold – the colour of might, money and influence in both Rome and Egypt.

Imperial Purple and Pompeian Red – the legacy and law of the Roman Empire and the heart of Antony.

This detail of the painting shows a symbol of purple and red laurel leaves surrounding a golden world.   In the power that was the Ancient Roman Empire, laurel wreaths were worn as crowns by the victors of war.

The Ancient Romans used purple clothing to denote rank, the highest being the entirely purple toga reserved for Emperors.  Purple dye was extracted from a variety of molluscs and was a complex and labour intensive process and so purple became a colour that only the rich and powerful could afford.  One of these molluscs was the ‘Purpura’, from which the term purple derives.

The red is a dark, dried-blood colour.  It is Pompeian red, as red is the principal colour to survive in the frescoes of the volcano-buried Ancient Roman city of Pompeii when all the other colours have faded. There is something about the strength of this colour that stands the test of time –  just like this tale of fated lovers.

Magenta – a combination of purple and red; the passion at the heart of the story.

When it came to representing Cleopatra however, the Roman purple and red would not work.  The colours were not passionate enough.  And so I combined the ‘cold’ Roman purples and reds to make a wonderfully passionate Magenta.

Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra’s barge, and my favourite passage in the play, reads as follows:

‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water; the poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that
The winds were love-sick with them, ’

Enobarbus of Cleopatra  II.ii.200

My poetic licence in the chase of the passionate has the golden barge with Magenta sails …

ANTONY and CLEOPATRA, detail with Cleopatra's barge
ANTONY and CLEOPATRA, detail with Cleopatra’s barge

I felt that the heady Magenta edge of Purple would convey the love-sickness of the winds more powerfully.

This Magenta would also provide a brilliant visual example of the opposites in the play, as outlined above by the RSC, as it contrasts strikingly with the other colours.

And so you have it: Powerful Gold, Imperial Purple, Pompeian Red, Mediterranean Turquoise and the most Passionate of Magentas – my retelling in symbols and colours of the glorious ‘Antony and Cleopatra‘ by William Shakespeare.


  1. So interesting. I’m fascinated by the process an artist uses to choose colour, shape, etc. I thought your painting was already powerful – torrid, almost! – but the explanation of the colours really makes it even better. Love-sick sails – amazing imagery from playwright and painter!


  2. Fantastic post. I completely agree with Colin the explanation especially of the eye really deepens my appreciation. I found this painting really intriguing and beautiful. Just saw a very funny interview between Melvyn Bragg and Judi Dench – an old one – in which Judi Dench was talking about people’s responses to her playing Cleopatra, the ‘most beautiful woman in the world.’ Along the lines of ‘What you?’ Of course she is beautiful but not in a conventional way!


  3. Thank you for the explanation of the colours, theme and process of your art piece. It made me see the painting with more curiousity. An explanation is an idea I’d like to see offered in art galleries. A brochure beside each piece so that readers who wanted to know more, could and those who want to interpret art themselves, can.


  4. Thank you for your comment Sandra.
    I completely agree with you. A brochure would be perfect, as I think it is vital that people start with the art and no information so that they can make their personal valuations and then proceed to the information if they so desire.
    Lovely to have you dropping by!


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