In Cleopatra, Luna dramatises the death of the Egyptian queen, a longstanding and popular subject in European painting. As penned by the Greek biographer Plutarch, Cleopatra was discovered dead in her chamber by Augustus Caesar´s men, dressed in her royal ornaments on her golden bed; one handmaiden, Iras, was dead at her feet, while the other, Charmion, was on the verge of collapsing. Luna captures this moment with a striking composition that is rich in colour and exquisite detail, from the distinct carvings and embellished fabrics to the gold jewellery. Barely noticeable in the painting is the tail of an asp peeking from the base of the right pillar, revealing Luna´s partiality to the popular theory that Cleopatra committed suicide by get-ting bitten by the poisonous snake. Luna won his first major prize in Europe, a Second Class medal at Spain´s 1881 Exposición General de Bellas Artes (General Exhibition of Fine Arts), with this painting. Also known as the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes, Spain´s national art exhibition took place every two to three years from 1856 to 1968, and hewed to the standards of Spain´s premier art school, the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando) in Madrid. While Luna had studied there, he made this painting after settling in Rome, having followed his teacher and mentor, the Spanish artist Alejo Vera, from Madrid. At the same 1881 exhibition, Vera won a First Class medal for El Último día de Numancia (The Last Day of Numancia), which depicts the Roman siege of an ancient settlement in Spain. Like Vera´s painting, Luna´s Cleopatra conformed to the academic tastes of the Spanish national exhibitions: a preference for large scale, highly theatrical works featuring historical events. Cleopatra drew the attention of the Spanish media: La Ilustracion Española y Americana acknowledged it as a "cuadro del artista filipino" (painting of a Filipino artist) and published an engraving of it. As a result of Luna´s award, the City Council of Manila granted him a scholarship to continue his studies in Rome. This early recognition of his talent was prescient, for Luna would win a First Class medal—and lasting fame for himself and the Philippines—at the next Spanish national exhibition in 1884 with the work, Spoliarium.
(G. Navarro, Carlos, 'Juan Luna's cursus honorum in Spain: Laurels and Thorns' En:. Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna, Singapur, National Gallery Singapore,, 2017, p.124-131 [125-128])