Oil on canvas, 70 x 91 inches. Agnes Scott College, Decatur, Georgia.
Leighton was a young man of twenty-three when he started this painting based on the death of Romeo and Juliet. He finished it in 1855 and showed it in Paris. He had trouble selling the canvas, exhibiting it in Manchester and New York before an American collector bought it. I have seen this painting, which now hangs in the library of Agnes Scott College here in Atlanta; it is huge--almost six feet tall and eight feet long--dingy and dark, except for the brightly painted figures and the draperies of Juliet and her mother, who lies grieving across Juliet's body. The Victorian taste for large paintings with such serious themes seems to have waned, but another picture, the exuberant, brightly lit and brilliantly colored depiction of the procession of Cimbue and his painting of the Madonna, finished at the same time as his Romeo and Juliet, was a great success when he showed it at the Royal Academy in 1855. Prince Albert so admired Cimbue's Celebrated Madonna that Queen Victoria bought it for the Royal Collection, thus securing the reputation of the young painter Leighton; for a discussion of both paintings, see Christopher Newell, pp. 12-20.
Newell is struck by the "theatricality" of Leighton's painting of Romeo and Juliet; the scene is "in effect a tableau from the play as performed on stage." The artificiality of the lighting, he adds, "heightens the sense that one is witnessing a performance rather than a scene from life. The foreground figures seem to glow luminously, while the central group is seen in half-light, and the remaining part recedes into shadowy obscurity; the blocked-out and compositionally unimportant background is exactly like that of a stage set. . . . Leighton has offered a finale to a play, with all the protagonists present for the final curtain fall, rather than a scene of human tragedy" (12-14).
Three studies for the painting
In 1853 Leighton painted a smaller watercolor version of the same scene.