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.

Rubens waited several years before revisiting the dynamic design he created for The Capture of Samson. A large painting of The Capture of Samson, painted in about 1620 or slightly before and now in Munich, is largely a studio work but clearly derived from the composition worked out in the Chicago sketch. The poses of Samson and his captors and of the old woman at the far left are nearly identical to those in the oil sketch, but again, the figure of Delilah has changed significantly. Rather than repeating the stiff and somewhat remote effect produced by posing her in profile, in the Munich painting Delilah is more accessible, turned toward the viewer and twisting her ample body away from the violent struggle. The design also inspired Anthony van Dyck's Samson Taken by the Philistines of about 1630-32 (oil on canvas, 146 x 254 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, inv. 512). The poses of Samson and Delilah in the latter painting clearly reflect the inventions of the Chicago sketch; even the small anecdotal detail of the barking dog to the left of Delilah's bed is discernible in the sketch. Possibly because of its connection with the workshop painting in Munich, as well as van Dyck's painting in Vienna, the present sketch was ascribed to van Dyck when it was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago.

X-rays taken of the panel secured the attribution to Rubens by revealing that The Capture of Samson was painted over an earlier, unfinished sketch by Rubens (turned upside down) for the Adoration of the Magi commissioned in 1609 for the Antwerp town hall; this discovery also provided important evidence for dating the Chicago picture (see Rosen and Held 1950-51). Rubens apparently abandoned the underlying sketch after having formulated his ideas for the group of figures surrounding the Virgin at the left of the composition and began again with the panel now at Groningen. He barely covered up the traces of his earlier sketch before beginning the Samson: portions of the Virgin's red and blue drapery as well as the dog and sword at her feet can still be made out at upper right. These relics create a "strange, apparently unsubstantiated glitter," which enhances the effect of excitement and danger (Rosen and Held 1950-51, p. 83). The technique of the Chicago sketch, and especially the palette—reminiscent of Tintoretto, with luminous flashes of pink and crimson threading the shadowy nocturne—as similar to other sketches from the period just after Rubens's return to Antwerp, such as the modello for the Adoration of the Magi in Groningen.

The mention of a sketch by "mijnheer Rubbens" of "Sampson ende Dalida" included in the inventory of Johannes Philippus Happaert of 1686 is too brief to permit certain identification with the Chicago painting; the reference might just as easily be identified with the Cincinnati or Thyssen sketches of the same theme.


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