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]