RUBENS, Peter Paul
(b. 1577, Siegen, d. 1640, Antwerpen)

Samson and Delilah

c. 1609
Oil on wood, 185 x 205 cm
National Gallery, London

In 1608 Rubens hastily returned home to Antwerp after an absence of eight years in Italy, in a vain attempt to reach the bedside of his dying mother. His arrival in the city virtually coincided with the truce between Spanish Flanders and the Dutch United Provinces, and he was quickly appointed official painter to the Regents of the Southern Netherlands, the Archduke Albert and the Archduchess Isabella, with leave to remain domiciled in Antwerp. He was never to return to Italy, although he was irrevocably marked by his study of ancient Greco-Roman and Italian Renaissance art. In Antwerp he proceeded to work towards the reconstruction of his war-torn country and to establish himself as a leading figure in its artistic and intellectual life.

One of his closest friends and patrons at this time was the wealthy and influential alderman Nicolaas Rockocx, for whom Rubens painted Samson and Delilah to hang in a prominent position over the mantelpiece of his `great saloon' in Antwerp. When the picture was hung at its original height of just over two metres (seven feet) some years ago in an exhibition at the National Gallery, it became clear how nicely Rubens had calculated the angle of vision. The surface of Delilah's bed receded to a properly horizontal plane, with the space of the room leading convincingly back to the wall and the door through which the Philistine soldiers enter to capture the hapless Jewish hero. To the multiple light sources in this room, for which Rubens was indebted to his friend Elsheimer - the flaming brazier, the candle held by the old procuress and the torch of the Philistines - we must add in our mind's eye a fire blazing in the fireplace below, highlighting the saffron satin throw behind Delilah and the patterned Oriental rug, and casting warm reflections in the shadows of the skin tones and the white drapery, where the coarse brown hatching of the underpaint is left uncovered or barely veiled.

The story of Samson's fatal passion for Delilah is told in the Old Testament (Judges 16:4-6, 16-21). Bribed by his Philistine enemies, she cozens Samson into revealing the source of his supernatural strength: his uncut hair. As he lies asleep in her lap during a night of love, she calls in a barber to cut off `the seven locks of his head'. The tale of a man brought low by lust for a woman was often treated in sixteenth-century Netherlandish art, and Rubens follows this Northern tradition by introducing a procuress, who does not appear in the Bible. Her profile juxtaposed with that of the youthful harlot both reveals her own past and suggests Delilah's future. At the same time, the painting is rich in Italian memories, not least in the ample scale of its life-size foreground figures, accommodated on the panel only by being shown reclining. A statue of Venus and Cupid presides over the erotic scene. Brawny Samson derives from antique sculpture and from Michelangelo; Delilah's pose is that of Michelangelo's Leda and Night in reverse. In Delilah's breast band Rubens draws on Roman marbles, but following his own maxim translates marble into soft and yielding flesh - some of the fleshiest ever painted.

Ultimately, however, this sumptuous picture is entirely original, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the incongruously dainty professional gesture of the barber and in Delilah's ambiguous expression, compounded of sensuality, triumph and pity.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.