This painting depicts the moment in Shakespeare’s epic tragedy Hamlet in which the protagonist, who has been speaking privately with his mother, Queen Gertrude of Denmark, notices a figure behind the curtains of her closet. Immediately afterward, Hamlet will impale the hidden Polonius with his sword, and utter the memorable phrase "How now! A rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!" The composition is identical to a black and white lithograph Delacroix made for a portfolio devoted to the play, which was first published in 1843.
This painting depicts the moment in Shakespeare’s epic tragedy Hamlet (Act III, scene iv) in which the protagonist, who has been speaking privately with his mother, Queen Gertrude of Denmark, notices a figure behind the curtains of her closet. Immediately afterward, Hamlet will impale him with his sword and utter the memorable phrase "How now! A rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!," after which the identity of the victim is revealed to be Polonius. The composition is identical to a black and white lithograph Delacroix made for a portfolio devoted to the play, comprising thirteen plates that he worked on from 1834 until their publication in 1843. (The stones for three further plates were completed, but not printed, until the posthumous edition of 1864.) The print, an impression of which is in The Met (22.56.12), appeared with the caption "Qu'est-ce donc? . . . Un rat!" A sepia drawing of the same composition was sold in Delacroix's posthumous sale as no. 401 (Robaut no. 587).
Delacroix noted that he completed the painting in a journal entry of February 4, 1849. On February 8, he signed a receipt for 100 francs from the dealer Adrien Beugniet, referring to the work as "une petite esquisse représentant Hamlet"; Beugniet’s gallery was located at 10 rue Lafitte, Paris (see Michèle Hannoosh, ed., Delacroix, Journal, Paris, 2009, vol. 2, p. 2112). He mentioned the sale once again in his journal, on March 13, this time calling it "Hamlet et la scène du rat" (and misspelling the dealer’s name "Bouquet"). It is unknown when and to whom Beugniet sold this cabinet-size picture, but its next known owner was the painter Narcisse Diaz de la Peña (1807–1876).
Delacroix painted a good many subjects from Hamlet from 1835 onward, the first being Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard (Johnson no. 258, as private collection, Switzerland). Two others that date to the same period as The Met's picture are Hamlet and the King at his Prayers (1848/49?; Johnson no. 294, as location unknown), which is likewise based on a lithograph and was perhaps sold to Beugniet, and Hamlet Abuses Ophelia (1849/50; Musée du Louvre, Paris; Johnson no. 298), also sold to Beugniet. One painted about 1855 for Alexandre Dumas depicts the moment immediately following the one shown in The Met's picture, Hamlet and the Body of Polonius (Johnson no. 319, as location unknown). In 1849, the year a number of these works were painted, including the present one, Delacroix exhibited a subject drawn from another play by Shakespeare at the Salon, Othello and Desdemona (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Johnson no. 291). [Asher Ethan Miller 2014]
Inscription: Signed (lower left): Eug. Delacroix.
[Adrien Beugniet, Paris, from 1849; bought from the artist for Fr 100]; Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Peña, Paris (until d. 1876; his estate sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, January 25, 1877, no. 325, as "Hamlet," for Fr 2,700 to Brame); [Galerie Brame, Paris, from 1877]; M. Perreau (until 1881; sold on October 24, for Fr 2,500, to Boussod, Valadon); [Boussod, Valadon & Cie, Paris, 1881; stock no. 15682; sold on October 24, for Fr 3,000, to Avery]; Samuel P. Avery, New York (from 1881; sold to Smith); Charles Stewart Smith, New York (until d. about 1910); his heirs (about 1910–19; sale, American Art Association, New York, April 25, 1919, no. 92, as "Death of Polonius," for $575 to Riefstahl); R. M. Riefstahl (from 1919); Adelaide Milton de Groot, New York (by 1936–d. 1967; on loan to MMA, 1936–39 and 1956–57; on loan to Springfield Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Mass., 1939–56)
Marseilles. Musée Cantini. "De la Scène au Tableau," October 6, 2009–January 3, 2010, no. 91.
Rovereto. Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto. "Dalla scena al dipinto," February 6–May 23, 2010, no. 91.
Toronto. Art Gallery of Ontario. "Drama and Desire: Art and Theatre from the French Revolution to the First World War," June 19–September 26, 2010, no. 91.
Eugène Delacroix. Journal entry. February 4, 1849 [Bibliothèque de l'Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art, collections Jacques Doucet, Paris, ms. 253 (1); published in Joubin 1932, vol. 1, p. 257; Hannoosh 2009, vol. 1, p. 415], calls it "le petit 'Hamlet et sa mère'" and records that he completed it that morning.
Eugène Delacroix. Letter to Monsieur Beugniet. February 8, 1849 [published in Joubin 1936, p. 374], notes that he has sold him this picture for Fr 100 and calls it "une petite esquisse représentant Hamlet".
Eugène Delacroix. Journal entry. March 13, 1849 [Bibliothèque de l'Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art, collections Jacques Doucet, Paris, ms. 253 (1); published in Joubin 1932, vol. 1, p. 277; Hannoosh 2009, vol. 1, p. 433], calls it "Hamlet et la scène du rat" and notes that he sold it to the dealer Beugniet (correctly identified by Hannoosh) for Fr 100.
Eugène Delacroix. Journal entry. [ca. 1850] [notebook in a private collection; published as "Carnet vert de Champrosay (1843–1853)" in Hannoosh 2009, vol. 2, p. 1636], calls it "Hamlet perçant la tapisserie" and adds the name of the dealer to whom he recently sold it, Beugnet [sic for Beugniet].
Théophile Silvestre. Delacroix. Paris, 1855, p. 81, as "Hamlet tuant Polonius".
Alfred Robaut. L'œuvre complet de Eugène Delacroix. Paris, 1885, p. 205, no. 766, as "Hamlet tuant Polonius"; claims that it was sold to Perreau for Fr 2,700 in the Diaz sale of 1877.
Loys Delteil. Le peintre-graveur illustré (XIX et XX siècles). Vol. 3, Ingres & Delacroix. Paris, 1908, unpaginated, under no. 111, mentions that this work was included in the Diaz sale of 1877.
André Joubin. Journal de Eugène Delacroix. Paris, 1932, vol. 1, pp. 257, 277 n. 1, publishes Delacroix's 1849 journal entries; identifies the "Hamlet et la scène du rat" referred to on March 13, 1849 as this work.
André Joubin. Correspondance générale d'Eugène Delacroix. Vol. 2, Paris, 1936, p. 374 n. 1, identifies a work mentioned by Delacroix in a letter of February 8, 1849 as having been sold to M. Beugniet for Fr 100 as either this picture or Robaut no. 765, "Hamlet hésitant à tuer le roi".
Luigina Rossi Bortolatto. L'opera pittorica completa di Delacroix. Milan, 1972, pp. 108–9, no. 376, ill. (lithograph), does not give an owner, but lists it as Robaut no. 766; dates it 1843.
Lee Johnson. The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix: A Critical Catalogue. Vol. 3, Oxford, 1986, pp. 119, 346, 354, no. 293 and under no. 294, as "Hamlet about to Kill Polonius;" states that it is this picture, and not R943 (J319), that Delacroix records as finishing in his journal entry for February 4, 1849 [see Ref. Joubin 1932, p. 257 n. 2].
Lee Johnson. The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix: A Critical Catalogue. Vol. 4, Oxford, 1986, pl. 112.
Michèle Hannoosh, ed. Eugène Delacroix: Journal. Paris, 2009, vol. 1, pp. 415, 433, vol. 2, p. 1636, publishes Delacroix's 1849 and ca. 1850 journal entries; identifies the "Hamlet et la scène du rat" referred to by Delacroix on February 4, 1849 as Johnson 1986, no. 293, and affirms that this is the painting listed in Delacroix's letter to Beugniet of February 8, 1849; notes that Delacroix misspells the name Beugniet as "Beugnet" on March 13, 1849; further notes that the name has also been misread, as both "Bocquet" (Robaut 1885) and "Bouquet" (Joubin 1932).
Katharine Lochnan inDrama and Desire: Art and Theatre from the French Revolution to the First World War. Ed. Guy Cogeval and Beatrice Avanzi. Exh. cat., Musée Cantini, Marseilles. Milan, 2010, p. 184, no. 91, ill. p. 191 (color), dates it about 1830.
This picture was sent to the Art Museum of South Texas at Corpus Christi for an exhibition entitled "Romantic Art at the Time of Beethoven," held from March 15 to April 28, 1970; however, the painting was returned to New York before the opening of the exhibition. The exhibition catalogue, if one exists, is untraced, and it is not known if it includes the picture.