If you stroll through Central Park and approach the Delacorte Theater, a sculpture outside will command your attention.
Romeo and Juliet, the young couple of Shakespeare’s classic tale of romance and tragedy, are cast in a bronze embrace and pending kiss. Both tall and slim, the oversized lovers stand atop a granite pedestal on a plot of grass between a walkway and the theater, famous for its Shakespearean productions. Romeo forward; his hands pressed into Juliet’s bare lower back and hip, leading her toward him. With her back and head of long hair thrown back, she gingerly wraps an arm and hand around Romeo’s head; her other hand rests on his hip.
Because I haven’t read Shakespeare’s tragedy about the doomed lovers, I can’t comment on whether this work depicts a certain scene. But that knowledge is unnecessary to observe and interpret a sculpture and form a theme, one of my main pleasures of contemplating art.
Observe, for example, that the feature distinguishing the subjects most is their clothes—or lack thereof, at least in the context of outdoor art in New York City. Standing sturdily flat footed, Romeo is fully dressed, while Juliet, barefoot and raised on her toes to meet his lips, wears what looks like a nightgown. These features suggest Romeo is visiting Juliet’s home in the evening, before bedtime. Her evening wear is made of materials so light that it appears as one with her naked flesh, particularly her buttocks, breasts and stomach. This apparent partial undress serves to accentuate Juliet’s feminine vulnerability in Romeo’s arms.
My Internet search of well-known quotes from the tragedy produced a line that perhaps reflects the scene the sculptor, Milton Hebald, wanted to bring to life in bronze: "Good Night, Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow." (2.2.185-186)
Cliff Notes explains this line as follows: “In her farewell, Juliet expresses her sorrow about being away from her love, Romeo. But their parting is sweet, because the next time they meet, their wedding will take place.”
In the late 1970s Hebald cast and unveiled his sculpture, which unfortunately features certain modern, detracting touches. Among them is its overall rough, slightly smeared texture (a nod to Rodin?), especially evident in Romeo’s clothes, although this serves to contrast with and heighten a few smooth areas, most of all Juliet’s sensual stomach. Other detractions are exaggerated or undefined physical features, including Juliet’s ears. But these fail to significantly undercut the celebration of passionate romance and sensuality at the heart of this work.
Photos by Joseph Kellard
These defining qualities, though, are enhanced by the sculpture’s setting in a park environment. While Greek and Roman nude sculptures are common inside the neighboring Metropolitan Museum of Art and other New York City museums, they are rare to non-existent among outdoor art in the city—and rarer still are subjects of romantic love.
While the nudes at the Met are usually placed close together and stand amid crowds of museum-goers, Romeo and Juliet is a one-of-a-kind outdoor sculpture that stands alone and that art-lovers can sit on a park bench and serenely soak in its beauty.
* Acknowledgements to art historian and writer Dianne Durante for proving me with certain insights about this sculpture.
* This blog was revised in February 2019.