Oil on papier mounted on canvas
H. 0.35 m; W. 0.26 m
Purchased in 2008
MD 2008 - 3
Delacroix composed no fewer than twenty paintings of Shakespearean subjects between 1835 and 1859, not counting his sixteen lithographs of 1834-1843 based on Hamlet, the ill-fated romantic hero with whom he no doubt identified in his youth after the misfortune that left him a destitute orphan. In addition to nine paintings devoted to Hamlet, he depicted Othello four times, but Romeo and Juliet only twice: The Parting of Romeo and Juliet (United States, private collection), which was exhibited in 1846, and this painting, Romeo and Juliet at the Tomb of the Capulets. It illustrates Act V scene III, in which Romeo finds the unconscious Juliet and, believing her to be dead, kills himself in despair (leaving Juliet to wake and commit suicide in turn).
Delacroix discovered Shakespeare in 1825, on his famous visit to London. He admired Edmund Kean, considering him "a very great actor" in the roles of Richard III and Shylock. In 1827, like the rest of his generation, he enthused over the English performances at the Odéon and the Salle Favart by Charles Kemble and the famous Irish actress Harriet Smithson, who became Berlioz’s muse (to his misfortune). "The English have opened their theater," he wrote to his friend Soulier on September 28, 1827. "They have worked miracles, drawing such crowds to the Odeon that all the paving stones in the neighborhood rattle under the carriage wheels."
The performances of Romeo and Juliet that were so highly acclaimed by the Romantics inspired Berlioz-despite his not speaking English-to compose his dramatic symphony Romeo and Juliet some twelve years later in 1839; they also left a lasting impression on Delacroix. This is apparent from a print of 1827, showing Charles Kemble and Harriet Smithson in exactly the same costumes as in Delacroix’s painting, which was executed much later in around 1850, the only difference being that the actress’s bosom is less exposed. Shakespeare’s play continued to interest the painter; his diary entry of December 29, 1860 features an annotated list of a dozen subjects taken from Romeo and Juliet, including the Ball scene, Juliet and her nurse, the parting of Romeo and Juliet on the balcony, Romeo sees Juliet lying in the tomb, Juliet awakes and throws herself on the dying or dead Romeo.
Delacroix’s painting was presented with forty-one others at the Universal Exhibition of 1855, to mixed acclaim. Théophile Gautier was moved by it: "The surprise of the tomb can be perceived in the bloodless pallor and staring eyes of the revived girl who, alas, is soon to sleep the everlasting sleep on Romeo’s dead body" (Le Moniteur, July 25, 1855). But Maxime du Camp disliked it: "The only thing of interest in the painting is a white drape around the young woman’s knees. The rest is barely sketched, and fades before the excessive glare of this white patch."
The painting, which belonged to Madame Delessert at the time, was apparently later returned to the artist who sold it to T. B. G. Scott, of the Société des Amis des Arts de Bordeaux where the work had recently been exhibited. In October 1857, it had to be entrusted to the restorer Etienne-François Haro. Delacroix mentions it in a letter of November 20, 1857 to his intermediary, Dauzat: "I am returning M. Scott’s little painting to you. It has been suitably unvarnished and, I believe, considerably brightened, without accident [...]." Since then, this moving painting was only known through a (reversed) lithograph by Eugène Le Roux; in 2008, it entered the Musée Delacroix, where it joined the complete series of original lithographic stones and lithographs illustrating Hamlet.
Maxime du Camp, Les Beaux-Arts à l’exposition universelle de 1855. Peinture. Sculpture. Librairie nouvelle, Paris, 1885
André Joubin, Correspondance, 1935, Volume 3
Lee Johnson, The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix. A Critical Catalogue, volume III, Oxford, 1986, n° L150 ; volume IV, repr. 307 (lithography).