The beginning of the 1940s marked a period of significant change for Dalí. Having endured a complicated escape from Europe, he had experienced the ravages of the War on the landscape of his earlier life in Spain which had devastated the towns he once inhabited. Upon his arrival in America with his wife Gala on 16 August 1940, Dalí found many new prospects. His autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí was in production and there were further exhibitions on the horizon, both with his dealer Julien Levy and a major retrospective planned at The Museum of Modern Art in New York from November 1941 into 1942 which would travel to eight cities in America and receive significant critical acclaim. Although the danger of Europe had been of significant bearing, there were other motivations for his relocation, as Dalí readily admitted in his autobiography: "I needed, in fact, immediately to get away from the blind and tumultuous collective jostlings of history, otherwise the antique and half-divine embryo of my originality would risk suffering injury and dying before birth in the degrading circumstances of a philosophic miscarriage occurring on the very sidewalks of anecdote. Ritual first and foremost! Already I am concerning myself with its future, with the sheets and pillows of its cradle. I had to return to America to make fresh money for Gala, him and myself..." (The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, New York, 1942, p. 390). As such, the move also brought new opportunities to the artist, who would extend his oeuvre into the realms of theatre, film, advertising and jewelry design, collaborating with a number of prominent American creatives and expanding his repertoire within this new environment.
Between 1942 and 1946, the central preoccupation of Dalí's art was with the creation of a number of fantastical designs for the New York stage. This period culminated with Dalí's celebrated collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock for the movie Spellbound in which Dalí created a number of dramatic sets for the dream sequence of this psychoanalytic thriller about the power of the unconscious. Dalí furthermore collaborated on works for the ballet, creating works such as Décor pour Romeo et Juliette as part of a series of stage designs for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, invited by British choreographer Antony Tudor and commissioned by the Marqués de Cuevas, a wealthy patron in America who was set upon funding adventurous productions for his company Ballet International.
Orchestrated within a trompe l’oeil stage setting, the atmosphere of the present work is one of a storm-tossed dramatic landscape of impending tragedy. In the creation of this enigmatic but sinister atmosphere, Dalí drew on his own personal lexicon of surrealist imagery which in turn owes much to the historical influence of Giorgio de Chirico's metaphysical Décor pour Romeo et Juliette paintings, an important basis of inspiration for the Surrealist movement early on. The two opposing military towers, the colonnade of arches, elongated afternoon shadows and the clock tower which Dalí has transformed into the figure of a sorrowful woman, are all features common to de Chirico's evocation of melancholy incorporated within Dalí’s own repertoire of signs. Dalí further invokes his paranoid-critical method, and in his "delirium of interpretation" creates a dual image from a single configuration of forms, metamorphosing the bow of a ship into stone to become a crumbling building, providing a dream-like quality that depicts the ruin of a formerly proud and ambitious structure to a decaying relic, subjected to the ravages of time.
In Dalí's hands these elements become dramatically animated metaphors of psychological unrest–a tormented landscape in which love, as exemplified by Romeo and Juliet, has no chance. In the context of the story, the central figure of the sorrowful and physically crumbling woman would seem to be Juliet in despair. Her clock face indicates the agony of the passing of time and the empty cavity of her chest recalls the famous balcony scene between the two lovers. The sky, indeed the whole world, appears to be disintegrating along with her crumbling edifice, mirroring the world that the artist himself left behind in Europe. In the dark and desolate landscape with its long mysterious shadows prefiguring Dalí's work for Spellbound, a wild and screaming horse, propped up by Dalínean crutches seems an evocation of madness. As a whole, Décor pour Romeo et Juliette is a highly dramatic and powerful image of the psychic torment of love that has "run aground."