Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Capture of Samson, ca. 1609-10
Oil on panel, 50.4 x 66.4 cm
The Art Institute of Chicago, Robert A. Waller Memorial Fund, acc. no. 1923.551

Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

After the Hebrew hero Samson revealed the secret of his strength to his lover Delilah, locks of hair were cut from his head while he slept, rendering him helpless (see Samson and Delilah for Rubens's masterful depiction of this scene). In the present sketch, Rubens explores the very next moment in the narrative: the dramatic scene in which Samson, shorn of his hair and thus of his strength, is taken captive by a group of Philistine soldiers. Enhanced by the flickering chiaroscuro, the painting's violent action contrasts sharply with the languid sensuality and quiet stealth of the Samson and Delilah. As the soldiers swarm fiercely to overcome Samson's thrashing resistance, Delilah struggles to raise herself from her bed. Her left arm is outstretched, but whether she is pushing Samson into the arms of his captors or making a feeble, futile protest against the fierceness of the attack is not clear. Behind Delilah is the ghostly figure of a woman, who with her left arm tries to shield Delilah from the soldiers' attack. Samson's torqued, muscular figure recalls the Hellenistic statue of Laocoön (which Rubens studied and copied so assiduously during his vist to Rome); the soldier at right with his arm outstretched recalls the so-called Borghese Warrior now in the Musée du Louvre (d'Hulst and Vandenven 1989, p. 116). Madlyn Kahr has argued that all three of Rubens's oil sketches of Samson and Delilah—the Chicago sketch, the Cincinnati modello (Samson and Delilah), and a third oil sketch of the Blinding of Samson in the Thyssen Collection—are all related to the painting of Samson and Delilah commissioned by Nicolas Rockox about 1609 (Kahr 1972, pp. 292ff.; for a discussion of the commission, see Samson and Delilah). She suggested that the Thyssen sketch was the artist's first, rather tentative approach to the theme, followed by the sketch now in Chicago, more fully developed with a clearer presentation of the narrative (ibid., p. 295). Many elements are nearly identical in the two sketches; the most striking change is Delilah's transformation from a sturdy, contorted figure nearly Samson's equal to the more passive, delicate creature seen in strict profile in the Chicago sketch. If these works can be connected with the Rockox commission (neither Held [1980, vol. 1, p. 433] nor d'Hulst and Vandenven [1989, p. 118] were convinced by Kahr's thesis, although they acknowledged the close relationship between the Thyssen and Chicago sketches), it may be, as Kahr suggested (1972, p. 295) that the violence and frank eroticism of Samson Captured by the Philistines were found unacceptable by Rubens's patron, which led the artist to select a quieter, more contempletive aspect of the theme for his final submission...

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