If you stroll through Central Park and approach the Delacorte Theater, famous for its Shakespearean productions, a sculpture there 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 over-sized lovers stand atop a granite pedestal on a plot of grass and trees between the park walkway and theater. Romeo leans into Juliet; his hands pressed into her bare lower back and hip, leading her toward him. With her back and head of long hair thrown back, Juliet 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 enjoyments of contemplating art.
Observe, for example, that the feature that most distinguishes the subjects is their clothes or lack thereof. 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 has visited Juliet’s home in the evening, before bedtime. Her evening wear is made of such light materials that it appears as one with her naked flesh, particularly her buttocks, breasts and stomach. This seeming 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 artist, 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.”
The sculpture’s park environment, though, helps to significantly enhance these defining qualities. While Greek and Roman nude sculptures are common at the neighboring Metropolitan Museum of Art and other New York museums, they are rare or non-existent among outdoor monuments in the city, and rarer still are romantic subjects.
While the nudes at the Met are crowded together and often amid crowds of museum-goers, Romeo and Juliet is a one-of-a-kind outdoor sculpture that art-lovers can sit on a park bench and serenely soak in its beauty.
Photos by Joseph Kellard
In the late 1970s, Hebald cast and unveiled his sculpture, which, unfortunately, features certain modern, detracting touches. Among them is its rough, slightly smeared texture (a nod to Rodin), especially evident in Romeo’s clothes, although this serves to contrast with and heighten the few smooth spots, most of all Juliet’s sensual stomach. Other detractions are exaggerated or undefined physical features, such as Juliet’s ears. But these fail to undercut too much the passionate romance and sensuality at the heart of this work.