Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Peter Paul Rubens
Samson and Delilah, probably 1609
Oil on panel, 52.1 x 50.5 cm
Cincinnati Art Museum, Mr. and Mrs. Harry S. Leyman Endowment,
acc. no. 1972.459

Catalog Entry by Marjorie E. Wieseman

The subject of this dramatic scene is taken from the Old Testament book of Judges (chap. 16): the Hebrew hero and legendary strongman Samson spent his life enmeshed in the brutal ongoing conflict between Israel and the Philistines. He fell in love with the beautiful but deceitful Delilah, whom the Philistines bribed to discover the source of Samson's colossal strength. Wearied by Delilah's persistent questioning, Samson revealed to her that his strength lay in his hair: if his hair were cut, he would be no stronger than any other man. One night as he lay sleeping in Delilah's lap, she called for a man to cut off his hair, and Samson was immediately overpowered and captured by the Philistines.

Rubens's highly charged sketch locates Samson's undoing in a darkened chamber illuminated by multiple sources of flickering light. The lamp burning at the left edge of the composition, the candle held by the old woman, torches held by the Philistines, and the lamp burning before a background niche sculpt forms with dramatic chiaroscuro and enhance the furtive urgency of the scene. Fully clothed but voluptuously bare-breasted, Delilah reclines on a carpet-covered bed that spans the foreground of the composition. Her left hand rests almost tenderly on Samson's shoulder as he slumbers in postcoital repletion, sprawled across her lap with a mighty arm dangling over her leg. Standing just behind the couple, a young man lifts a lock of Samson's hair with his left hand and snips it close with the shears held in his right. The awkward crossing of his hands is surely intentional and meant to convey a specific reference to betrayal (see Kahr 1972, p. 295, with further references).

Rubens emphasizes the eroticism of the scene not only in the visual expression of Delilah's treacherous sensuality but also through the inclusion of the old crone who stands behind her. In accordance with biblical commentaries that describe Delilah as a temptress and whore, and certainly cognizant of the many moralizing prints of brothel scenes produced during the sixteenth century, Rubens casts the old woman as a procuress, aiding and abetting Delilah's duplicity (on the development of this tradition, see Kahr 1972). The statue of Venus and Cupid in a background niche underscores Delilah's professionalism, making it clear, as Julius Held noted, "which deity is served in Delilah's house" (1980, vol. 1, p. 431).

Rubens liberally referenced the work of other artists in his composition: Delilah's pose echoes (in reverse) the figure of Night from Michelangelo's tomb for Giuliano de' Medici in the church of San Lorenzo, Florence; the nocturnal setting and complex lighting effects were inspired not only by Caravaggio but also by Rubens's colleague in Rome, Adam Elsheimer; and the arrangement of the composition is sufficiently close to Tintoretto's interpretation of the subject to suggest that Rubens might have known that painting as well (R. Oldenbourg, Peter Paul Rubens, ed. Wilhelm von Bode [Munich, 1922], pp. 83, 86; Tintoretto's composition is known in two versions, one at Chatsworth and one in the John and Mable Ringling Museum, Sarasota, inv. SN75). Rubens's painting is in no sense derivative, however, but attests to his thorough understanding and inventive assimilation of artistic sources.

The Cincinnati sketch is the modello for the large painting of Samson and Delilah commissioned by the wealthy Antwerp burgemeester, antiquarian, and collector Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640) and now in the National Gallery, London. In late 1608 or very early 1609, Rockox had been instrumental in Rubens's receiving the prestigious commission for an Adoration of the Magi for the Antwerp town hall (now Museo del Prado, Madrid, inv. 1638). Formal parallels between the Adoration and the Samson and Delilah suggest that Rockox commissioned the latter at about the same time (Brown, in London 1983, p. 8). Frans Franken the Younger's Banquet in the House of Burgemeester Rockox (c. 1630-35; Alte Pinakothek, Munich, inv. 858) shows the finished painting prominently hung above the fireplace in a fanciful rendering of de groote Saleth (the large salon) in Rockox's home on the Keizerstraat.

Rubens initially composed the main figural grouping in a pen-and-ink drawing, which differs from the painted sketch only in detail. The barber is brought farther forward in the modello, creating a much tighter and more effective grouping; Delilah's right leg is extended to better support the weight of Samson's body; and the old woman at left holds a candle in her left hand while shielding it with her right, dramatically illuminating the treacherous act. Much detail is added in the painted modello, particularly in the background. A great swag of curtain at the top of the composition heightens the closeness of the room, with the added effect of permitting us a covert glimpse of a clandestine act. The niche with the statue of Venus and Cupid has been added, as well as a shelf with glass jars (probably containing the lotions and potions appropriate, with the towel hanging below, to a prostitute's toilet [Brown, in London 1983, p. 11], although Held interpreted them as wine vessels, an allusion to drunkenness as one of the causes of Samson's downfall [Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 432]).

Rubens made few modifications to the modello in the final painting: he changed the angle of the barber's face and gave him a beard, added an elaborate ewer below the shelf with the glass vessels, and added two soldiers to the group of Philistines at the door. The London painting is more horizontal in format than the modello, incorporating at left a fuller view of Delilah's bed and the lamp; and at right, a strip of wall beside the doorway and nearly the whole of Samson's outstretched foot. When the Cincinnati painting was sold in 1966, strips of wood totaling about 8.25 centimeters wide (evidently not original) had been added to either side of the panel, bringing the proportions closer to those of the London painting; these strips were removed before the museum acquired the painting in 1972. The inscription at lower right (itself a later addition) originally extended onto the added strip and included the whole of Rubens's surname.

In addition to having been presented to Rockox for his approval, the Cincinnati sketch appears to have served as the modello for a masterful engraving by the Haarlem printmaker Jacob Matham (1571-1631). Details in the print, such as the beardless barber, the arrangement of jars on the wall shelf, and the number of soldiers in the doorway, correspond more closely to the modello than to the finished painting. Matham's engraving dates to about 1613; Rubens may have brought the oil sketch (or a drawing based on it) with him when he visited Haarlem in June 1612 (see Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 432).

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

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