The Death of Sophonisba
(Nicholas Regnier or Renieri)


1590? Maubeuge — Venice 1667

It is often stated that Nicolas Régnier was born on 6 December 1591 in the Flemish town of Maubeuge, although a recent reassessment of the baptismal records suggests that he may have been born at least a year earlier. He was trained in the Antwerp studio of Abraham Janssens, one of the few northern painters to have been in Rome during Caravaggio’s lifetime. It was perhaps at Janssens’ urging that Régnier too travelled to the Eternal City. In 1610 one ‘Signor Niccolò Raneri Fiammingo’ is documented as living near the Piazza Navona, but it is not clear if this was the young artist. For a few months in 1618-1617 a ‘Niccolò Regniero fiamengo da Mombros’ was employed at the Farnese court in Parma as a courier, but once again there is no indication that he was a painter. There is, however, no doubt that by 1620 he was sharing a house in Rome with two other Flemish artists, David de Haen and Dirck van Baburen. Like many other northern painters, who lived in the small crowded streets surrounding the Via Marguta, they were particularly drawn to the Caravaggesque work of Bartolomeo Manfredi.
According to the German biographer, Joachim von Sandrart, Régnier also worked in the ‘Manfrediana methodus’, producing low-life genre scenes in which the physical and psychological drama was underscored by a sharp contrast of light and shade. In fact, his style and choice of subject matter so closely paralleled Manfredi’s that their work has often been confused. Sandrart, who knew Régnier personally, also reported that he became a member of the household of the pre-eminent Roman collector Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani. It would appear that Régnier served as Giustiniani’s official painter, a ‘pittore domestico’, who in 1622-1623 resided in the family’s palace on the Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi. There, according to Sandrart, he painted both religious and profane subjects from live models. Régnier was one of the best represented artists in the collection with no fewer than nine works listed in Vincenzo’s 1638 post mortem inventory.
Régnier left Giustiniani’s household in 1623 at the time of his marriage to Cecilia Bezzi and two years later the family moved to Venice, perhaps stopping on the way in Bologna. New surroundings brought new contacts and Régnier soon abandoned Manfredi’s tenebrist manner in favour of the more decorative style of the German painter Johann Liss, who was also residing in the Venice. Already during his last years in Rome, Régnier had been attracted to Simon Vouet’s more seductive interpretation of Caravaggism with its clear light and classical structure. Now he wholeheartedly adopted a new approach that emphasized an increased textual sensuality. This colourful, glossy and self-consciously elegant style was further refined through his contact with Bolognese painters such as Guido Reni and Guercino.
Régnier remained in Venice for the rest of his life, adopting the Italian name Nicolò Renieri. On occasion he was summoned to Mantua and Modena to paint court portraits. In Venice more and more of his time was devoted to collecting and dealing. As early as 1634 he was negotiating with an English agent to sell paintings to the Duke of Hamilton. The list sent to England is especially interesting because it includes both ‘Old Masters’ such as Titian and Michelangelo and contemporary works by Caravaggio, Poussin, Guercino, and Liss. Régnier also undertook the arduous role of ‘spacciatore di falsi’, providing expertise on questionable works. In 1666, the year before his death, sixty-five paintings from his own collection were sold at a public auction. Once again the eclectic mix of international artists attests to Régnier’s wide-ranging artistic knowledge and avant-garde taste.


the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world
Edgar Allan Poe

With a poignancy of operatic portions, Nicolas Régnier has given the act of death an irresistibly beautiful form. His ill-fated heroine, Sophonisba, is the embodiment of faultless natural pulchritude. The bright whiteness of her porcelain-like skin is set against a majestic sweep of rich, brocaded silk. Her youthful perfection contrasted to the toothless face of her wizened servant. Her inevitable tragic end played out with an air of utter simplicity. As a poisoned cup tumbles from her hand, Sophonisba’s eyes turn upwards. Stiffened by the paralysis of the death, she takes a final breath as her young companion silently wipes a tear away. One can easily imagine a curtain falling on this carefully staged melodrama steeped in poetry and pathos.
The tragic heroine, languishing in death with upturned eyes, was a staple of seventeenth-century art and depictions of Artemisia, Cleopatra, Dido, Lucretia and Sophonisba often seem interchangeable. In Régnier’s painting, however, the letter signed ‘MAS…’, falling from the heroine’s limp fingers, and the drained cup overturned on the table near a discarded crown clearly identify her as Sophonisba, the beautiful daughter of Hasdrubal, a Carthaginian general during the Second Punic War. Livy (30:12-15) recounts how in order to help her father ensure the allegiance of Numidia against the Romans, Sophonisba agreed to marry Syphax, the Numidian king. When her husband was overthrown, Sophonisba pleaded with his captor, King Masinissa, to let her die at his hands rather than be turned over alive to the Romans. Overwhelmed by desire for the young queen, Masinissa married her on the spot and took her back to the Roman camp as his wife. But when he was reproached for marrying the enemy, he sent her a poison cup with a note saying she should avail herself of it if she did not wish to be taken into slavery. Sophonisba willing drank the poison, remarking that she would have had a better death had she not married on the day she was to die.
By the fourteenth century Sophonisba was well established in the canon of virtuous women. Her story was included in Boccaccio’s Famous Women and elaborated upon by Petrarch in his epic poem Africa. Because she had feared shame more than she loved life and her self-inflicted death deprived her captors of the opportunity to parade her triumphantly through Rome as a prisoner, Sophonisba was seen as an exemplar of strength and intrepidity. At the beginning of the sixteenth century there was a resurgence of interest in her story. Galeotto del Carretto, Marquis of Savona, dramatized Livy’s account in 1502, although his play was not published until 1546. In 1515 Giangiorgio Trissino also adapted the story for the stage. At least ten editions of Trissino’s play appeared between 1524 and 1620 and after its inaugural staging in 1562 at the Palazzo della Ragione in Vicenza, there were innumerable other productions. Trissino turned the tale into a tragic love affair. In his version Sophonisba and Masinissa had been betrothed before her father forced her to marry Syphax. When the Romans revile their bigamous marriage, Masinissa sends Sophonisba the toxic vial out of love. Appearing from the wings, Sophonisba’s weeping maidservant recounts how her mistress drank the poison. At the climax, the nearly blind heroine reappears on stage herself, tragically dying just as her loyal companion, Erminia, holds up her two-year-old son for one final kiss.
Depictions of Sophonisba, while not widespread, are found in a variety of paintings and prints. She is generally shown with a messenger, either approaching or proffering a cup. Less often she drinks from the cup as in Mantegna’s simulated relief of gilt bronze (National Gallery, London) or Georg Pencz’s engraving. The grisaille, which decorates the atrium of Palladio’s Teatro Olympico in Vicenza, was undoubtedly based on Trissino’s play since it shows Sophonisba’s infant son clutching to her gown as she accepts the poison chalice. Régnier departed from the earlier tradition by depicting Sophonisba in the act of dying. Her languid pose and upturned eyes recall the sexually charged imagery of Guido Reni’s contemporaneous paintings of Cleopatra and Lucretia committing suicide. Such images reflected the general shift away from the admirable and brave women of Boccaccio, who heroically took their own lives, to a new type of erotic fantasy centered on female self-destruction.
In this context, it is interesting to recall that Régnier owned a painting of Cleopatra by Reni. The seventeenth-century biographer Carlo Cesare Malvasia recounts how at the urging of the Venetian artist Palma Giovane, Guido Reni submitted a half-length Cleopatra to a competition being held in Venice by a merchant named Boselli. Palma, Guercino and Régnier also contributed pictures, but as Reni had predicted the Venetian won. After the competition Reni’s painting was acquired by Régnier, ‘who kept it in his museum like a diamond amid his other jewels’. Carlo Ridolfi also saw it there, touchingly describing the sadness with which Cleopatra’s spirit was slowly drained away. This apparently is the same painting attributed to Reni, depicting the dying Cleopatra seated in a chair near a small table, that was listed in the 1666 sale catalogue of Régnier’s collection. Reni continually returned to the theme of Cleopatra throughout his career, producing at least five different versions of the Egyptian queen’s suicide. Since Palma Giovane died in 1628, the painting Reni submitted to the competition described by Malvasia must date from the mid-1620s. Thus the painting owned by Régnier is most probably Reni’s Cleopatra now in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace.
Régnier appears to have adapted the pose of this particular Cleopatra for his Death of Sophonisba. Like Reni, he pushed his half-length heroine against the picture plane and then amplified the sense of space by tilting her head backwards, slightly pivoting her figure towards the right and diagonally thrusting her arm forward in a dramatic open-handed gesture. In Reni’s painting, voluminous swathes of pink and white drapery fall in rippling cascade around Cleopatra’s shoulders, exposing her delicate breast to the venomous asp. Although Sophonisba’s breasts are not completely bared, her creamy flesh is framed in much the same manner, creating a similar erotic effect. One senses that the layers of clothing have been pealed back to reveal the prefect, yet vulnerable, form of Sophonisba’s body. While Cleopatra commits suicide in isolation, Sophonisba’s death is witnessed by two devoted companions; an old woman, who tugs at her limp arm like a harbinger of death, and a young beauty, who grieves for a life as easily overturned as the shell that held the poison. Régnier’s decision to include them must have been directly influenced by Trissino’s play, in which a maidservant, as rich in years as in rags, and her confidant, Erminia, are both present. As in the play, Sophonisba is not seen drinking the poison. The emphasis is placed on the tragic consequences of her action, not on the act itself. In Reni’s painting there is an overt element of autoeroticism, which Régnier accentuates in his painting as well. Like Cleopatra, Sophonisba is subsumed by the sublime enjoyment of anguished pain.
The Death of Sophonisba proved to be one of Régnier’s most popular compositions. Five versions of it are known, of which the one now in London is universally accepted as the earliest and most accomplished example. In the earlier literature these five paintings were variously given to Guido Reni, Domenichino or Guercino. Such attributions are not surprising, since after his move to Venice in 1626, Régnier increasingly emulated the work of these contemporary Bolognese masters. During his years in Rome, while still under the direct influence of Manfredi, he had produced a number of multi-figured scenes such as The Cardsharps with a Gypsy Fortune Teller (Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest), in which the setting was given a sumptuous and sensual air. In Venice these aspects of his style become more refined, while at the same time his compositions took on the majestic magnitude of Guercino. From the 1620s on, Guercino had frequently employed a half-length format for narrative scenes in which his massive figures were allowed to dominate the pictorial space. In works such as Guercino’s Semiramide (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), the strong contrast of light and shade not only gives the figures solidity, but also creates a pattern of dancing highlights across the picture’s surface. In The Death of Sophonisba Régnier employs similar techniques. His composition is compressed and the overlapping figures pushed against the picture plane, while the setting is reduced to a mere backdrop. Like Guercino, Régnier accentuates the decorative quality of the light, transforming the abundant folds of fabric into a shimmering sea of metallic waves.
The numerous copies and variants of Régnier’s later work are a testament to the success enjoyed by his Venetian studio. It has been suggested that some of these works, including versions of The Death of Sophonisba might have been done in whole or in part by one of his four daughters or their husbands. His two eldest daughters, Lucrezia and Clorinda, were married respectively to the painters Daniel van den Djick and Pietro della Vecchia, but it is difficult to ascertain what, if anything, their role in the workshop might have been. Clorinda is the only daughter who seems to have been trained as a painter, although it is probable that she and her sisters all served as models for their father. It is possible that the figures of Sophonisba and Erminia were modelled on two of his daughters. Similar female types appear in other of his Venetian period works, including Mary Magdalene (City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, Ala.), Hero and Leandro (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), and Saint Sebastian Tended by Saint Irene (Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston-upon-Hull).
It is difficult to date Régnier’s Venetian works. The London The Death of Sophonisba has generally been placed in the early to mid-1650s, while the versions in Kassel and Leicester have been dated c. 1655-1665. However, it is possible that the London picture is slightly earlier. In any case, substantial changes were made to the settings, costumes and facial features of the later versions. This suggests that a cartoon or tracing existed for the figures’ poses, but that the London version was no longer in the studio when the others were completed. The sumptuous gold and shell vessel must also have been included, since its outline remains constant in all the versions, although its precise details do not. According to Hermann Voss, the cartoon for the weeping woman at the right was later used for the single figure of The Penitent Magdalene, formerly in the Michelsen collection in Frankfurt. A similar figure also appears Régnier’s Ammmon and Tamara (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart).

Beverly Louise Brown



Nicolas Régnier
The Death of Sophonisba, c. 1645
Oil on canvas, 126 x 161 cm
The Matthiesen Gallery

Provenance: G. P. Dudly-Wallis, London;
Julius Weitzner, New York, 1953;
Walter P. Chrysler Collection, New York, c. 1955-1970;
Colnaghi & Co., Ltd., London, c.1970;
sold Christie’s London, 13 December 1974, lot 42, bought by Munoz for 3800 Gns;
private collection, Madrid;
The Matthiesen Gallery, London, 2003.

Literature: Portland 1956, 30; Venice 1959, 57; Griseri 1961, 325; Fort Worth 1962, 42; New York 1964, no. 17; Ivanoff 1965, 15; Donzelli and Pilo 1967, 343; New York 1967, no. 12; Norfolk 1968, 31; London 1971, no. 10; Fantelli 1974a, 269; Fantelli 1974b, 97; Rome 1974, 243; London 1979, 105; Lehmann 1980, 214; Pallucchini 1981, I, 151 and II, 617; Tümpel 1986, 209; Guerrini 1991, 84; Düsseldorf 1995, 326; Skliar-Piquet 1996, 94.

The London picture is universally considered to be the finest version and is exceptional for its rich palette and metallic highlights and outstanding state of preservation. It is also generally dated earlier than the other four examples. However, in the 1971 Colnaghi catalogue it was suggested that the Leicester, Kassel and Piazzola versions preceded it (London 1971, no. 10). It first appeared in the Chrysler collection in the 1950s and since that time it is has been cited in the literature as either the Chrysler picture or the Colnaghi picture.

126 x 151 cm
Oil on canvas

Chrysler Collection, New York.
Colnaghi & Co. Ltd., London, c. 1960.
Private Collection.
Christie’s 13th December, 1974, Lot 42.
Private Collection, Madrid.


P. L. Fantelli, ‘Nicolò Renieri, pittor fiamengo’, in Saggi e Memorie di Storia dell’Arte, IX, 1974, pp. 77 ff.
Virtuous Virgins; Classical heroines, passion and the Art of Suicide, London 2004
H. Potterton, Venetian 17th Century Painting; a Loan Exhibition from Collections in Britain and Ireland, Exhibition Catalogue, The National Gallery, London, 1979, p. 105.

Where is It?
Sold to a European Private Collector by The Matthiesen Gallery, London
Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Italian - Venetian
Price band
Sold or not available