HONTHORST, Gerrit van
(b. 1590, Utrecht, d. 1656, Utrecht)

Samson and Delilah

c. 1615
Oil on canvas, 129 x 94 cm
Museum of Art, Cleveland

The emergence of previously unknown Italian-period pictures by Gerrit van Honthorst, two representing the Mocking of Christ (Private collection and Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and a third, Christ Crowned with Thorns (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), has altered our view of the chronology of this Utrecht artist's early Roman production. It is now possible to suggest that Samson and Delilah should be dated as c. 1615. These new works help us to account for the rapid growth of Honthorst's reputation in Italy and his Italian nickname, 'Gherardo delle Notti'. Although the composition might be his initial response to such works as Caravaggio's Taking of Christ, Honthorst rarely repeated such compact arrangements of figures either in Rome or after he returned to the North.

It is difficult to know exactly what encouraged or inspired Honthorst to specialise in the use of artificial light sources since the idea already appears fully developed in what must be one of his earliest pictures. Among the possible sources is Rubens's c. 1609 nocturnal Samson and Delilah, in which an unusually sensitive investigation of artificial light is introduced into a popular Old Testament story (Judges 16: 19). Also new is Rubens's moralising physiognomic contrast between Delilah and her accomplice, an old servant woman. Since Honthorst uses both elements, although set into a very different composition, he may have known Rubens's picture through Jacob Matham's c. 1613 engraving. In Rome, Honthorst must have been aware of candlelit works such as Adam Elsheimer's Judith Beheading Holofernes. Indeed, it is likely that he was already acquainted with Elsheimer's work since Hendrick Goudt had brought a number of them to Utrecht. It is also of some significance that Karel van Mander lavished praise upon a series of nocturnal passion scenes painted on slate by Jacopo Bassano that he had seen in Rome.

One of the most striking elements in Samson and Delilah is Honthorst's utilisation of physiognomic contrasts. This device was popularised by Caravaggio in his Judith Beheading Holofernes, although without the moralising attitude which Rubens later added. For Caravaggio, the device was a way of accentuating Judith's beauty. Honthorst later used a similar contrast in his Tavern Scene with a Lute Player (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), in which the old woman appears for the first time as a procuress.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 10 minutes):
Camille Saint-Saens: Samson et Delila, Delila's aria