This is the only known preparatory drawing for Rubens’s Samson and Delilah in the National Gallery, London (inv. NG 6461), and it was followed by a modello oil sketch now in the Cincinnati Art Museum (inv. 1972.459). Commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), who was Rubens’s most important early patron, this powerful composition dates from shortly after the artist’s return to Antwerp from Italy, where he had been from 1600 until 1608, and provides a valuable insight into his developing style and preparatory processes.
The Israelite hero Samson was granted great strength from God in order to defend his people against their Philistine oppressors. After having laid waste to the Philistines’ fields and defeated their army of a thousand men armed only with the jawbone of an ass, Samson fell in love with the seductive Delilah, herself a Philistine. She was approached by agents from the Philistines' rulers, who bribed her to find out the secret of Samson’s power: three times he teased her with misleading information, but when she asked him a fourth time, he confessed that it was linked to his long hair. If he were ever to cut his hair or shave, this would be a breach of his vow to God and deprive him of his strength. The present drawing shows the moment when a Philistine barber cautiously begins to cut Samson’s hair, as he lies exhausted in Delilah’s lap, while Delilah and her elderly servant anxiously look on, and Philistine soldiers cluster in the doorway, waiting to overpower him. By the 17th Century, this Biblical story had gained a sensual, moralising element, as a warning against the power of feminine wiles, which could weaken and unman even the greatest of heroes. With its themes of antique heroism and erotic allure, it was a subject perfectly matched to Rubens’s art in this early, post-Italian period.
Rubens had spent eight years in Italy by the time he was summoned home in 1608, after his mother’s death, and his artistic style had been transformed by his study both of classical sculpture and the Italian masters. His muscular and voluptuous visual language found many admirers among Antwerp’s and Brussels’s elite, most significantly the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, who appointed Rubens as their Court Painter in July 1609. However, his most important patron at this period was not the Archduke, but the Antwerp Burgomaster Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640). Rockox was instrumental in bringing about Rubens’s two greatest public commissions of the period: The Adoration of the Magi, painted for the town hall in Antwerp in 1609; and The Descent from the Cross, commissioned for the Arquebusiers’ Chapel in Antwerp Cathedral in 1611. At the same date he commissioned a work for his own private art collection: the painting of Samson and Delilah (now in the National Gallery), which blended the grandeur and monumentality of Rubens’s Roman studies with the rich colour and sensuality of Venetian art.
Samson and Delilah was already in Rockox’s possession in circa 1611, when Jacob Matham (1571-1631) made an engraving of the composition (New Hollstein, 'Jacob Matham', I, no. 10). It was the only print Matham made after Rubens, which suggests that it may have been specially commissioned by the artist to publicise his composition. Certain details, such as the clean-shaven barber, indicate that the print was based on the Cincinnati oil sketch rather than the National Gallery painting. The oil sketch was presumably still in Rubens’s studio and thus more easily accessible, although Matham included a cartouche on the engraving which noted that the painting was in Rockox’s collection. It was still there in the early 1630s, when Frans Francken II’s Banquet at the House of Burgomaster Rockox shows the painting hanging in pride of place over the fireplace in the main reception room of the house on the Keizerstraat (Alte Pinakothek, Munich, inv. 858; New York, 2005, p. 126, under no. 28, fig. 70). The composition was evidently designed specifically for this position: the da sotto in su perspective indicates that it was intended to be seen from below, while the strong colours in the painting were chosen to make the most of the flickering firelight. The scene is also lit from the left, and Francken’s painting shows that the windows of Rockox’s reception room were along the corresponding wall.
The Preparatory Process
Owing to the survival of the intermediary oil sketch in Cincinnati (20 ½ x 19 7/8 in.; 52.1 x 50.5 cm.), and the final painting in the National Gallery (73 x 81 in.; 185 x 205 cm.), it is possible to follow the preparatory process for Samson and Delilah in some detail. Both oil sketch and painting were formerly sold in these Rooms: the oil sketch on 25 November 1966, lot 66, and the painting on 11 July 1980, lot 134. This drawing, with its lively strokes of pen and wash, established the composition which was to be elaborated in these later works. Certain elements recur in other drawings of the same period: for example, the sinuous twist of Samson’s figure is echoed in Judith killing Holofernes (Städel Museum, Frankfurt; New York, 2005, op. cit., no. 27) and Susanna (Musée Atger, Montpellier; New York, 2005, op. cit., no. 29). Both studies share the present sheet’s use of wash to define the curved surfaces of the figures and to offer a dark background against which the figures seem to leap out in sculptural relief. Where Samson and Delilah differs slightly is that Rubens used the pen much more extensively to emphasise and strengthen details masked by the wash. Bundles of short, swift strokes emphasise the curves of Samson’s body, and a similar, though looser use of hatching can be seen in the darker shadows of the Judith. In Samson and Delilah, however, Rubens also used a firmer, more vigorous hatching to define the back wall, the door and the waiting soldiers.
Samson dominates, even in repose: his powerful musculature testifies to Rubens’s intensive study of classical sculptures such as the Farnese Hercules and the Belvedere Torso, as well as his awareness of Michelangelo’s heroic nudes in the Sistine Chapel. The overall composition, with the cluster of figures at the left-hand side and the view through to the distant waiting soldiers on the right, suggests that Rubens also drew inspiration from Tintoretto’s painting of Samson and Delilah, now at Chatsworth. Although Tintoretto’s Samson is considerably less imposing than his Rubensian counterpart, the placement – if not the poses - of the maid and barber are very similar. If Tintoretto’s painting was one of Rubens’s sources, that may also explain why, in the drawing, Delilah seems almost to recoil from Samson, her right leg braced against the bed and her expression indicating remorse and trepidation. The pose is loosely inspired by Michelangelo’s Leda, which Rubens had copied while in Italy (Harvard University Art Museums, inv. 59.2001), as well as by his statue of Night in the Sagrestia Nuova at San Lorenzo in Florence, which Rubens had also drawn (Fondation Custodia, Paris, inv. 5251; J. Wood, Rubens: Drawing on Italy, exhib. cat., Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland, 2002, no. 14).
The drawing, which confidently establishes the composition’s form, was then translated into an oil modello for the next stage of development. In the Cincinnati oil sketch Rubens adjusted the positions of the figures, explored the balance of colours and added the elaborate background decoration; although there are still some minor differences from the final painting, such as the fact that the Philistine barber appears clean-shaven in the oil sketch and bearded in the painting. The oil sketch also maintains the square proportions of the present drawing, while the painting extends the composition into a more elongated horizontal format. Between drawing and oil sketch, however, Rubens made some key changes, most notably in his psychological approach to the scene. Delilah, for example, who seems so reticent in the drawing, becomes serene and detached in the oil sketch, looking on with a kind of fascination rather than anxiety. This was the stage at which Rubens decided to cross her legs, a motif which had an erotic charge in 17th-Century art, and which also added to the complacency of her attitude. The oil sketch brings the barber closer to Samson, which removes the impression given in the drawing that he is working cautiously at arm’s length. The oil sketch also shows him fully clothed, whereas in the drawing his bare torso and prominent position binds him together, with Samson and Delilah, into a striking triangular composition. In the Cincinnati oil sketch Rubens also refined certain anatomical details: the exaggerated twist of Samson’s body in the drawing is reduced in the oil sketch; Delilah’s braced arm is made smoother and covered with a sleeve; and the crossing of her legs gives her figure greater stability and strength.
The exact date of Samson and Delilah is unclear, partly because Rubens experimented with two very different approaches to the same subject in these post-Italian years. While the present drawing and the Rockox painting show the moment of tension preceding Samson’s capture, while the hero is still asleep and unaware, Rubens also executed a more violent version of the subject, showing the struggle between Samson and the soldiers as he is seized by them. An oil sketch of The Capture of Samson (Art Institute of Chicago, inv. 1923.551; see d’Hulst and Vandenven, op. cit., no. 32) was dated to circa 1610 in the 2005-06 London catalogue, while an even more dramatic treatment of the story, showing The Blinding of Samson (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, inv. 351 1978.47; see d’Hulst and Vandenven, op. cit., no. 33), was dated in the same catalogue to 1609-10. In 2000 David Jaffé published the results of a dendrochronological test which established that the planks of the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah were felled at the same date as, and maybe even came from the same tree as, Rubens’s 1610 Raising of the Cross for the church of Saint Walburga, Antwerp. The National Gallery painting and, by extension, the present drawing can therefore be dated to circa 1609-10.
The picture of Samson and Delilah was only rediscovered in 1929. When I.Q. van Regteren Altena bought the drawing in 1927, he listed it in his inventory under its traditional attribution to Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). That attribution also accounts for an earlier owner's inscription of the letters 'V.D.' in the lower left corner. With the emergence of the finished painting and the connected oil sketch, however, the drawing's significance rapidly became apparent. As the earliest study for one of Rubens’s first compositions after his return to Antwerp, still full of Italian sources and sentiment, it already shows the bravura of a young artist capable of blending inspiration from the antique and from the Old Masters into a scintillating synthesis of alluring power.
Samson and Delilah
Pen and brown ink, brown wash, brown ink framing lines
Sir Peter Paul Rubens
Sir Peter Paul Rubens , 17th Century, Drawings & Watercolors, ink, pen, wash, Flemish, Old Master, figures, Old Testament, religious
Amsterdam, Gallery J. Goudstikker, Rubenstentoonstelling, 1933, no. 67, illustrated (catalogue by J. Goudstikker).
Antwerp, Rubenshuis, Tekeningen van P.P. Rubens, 1956, no. 32 (catalogue by L. Burchard and R.-A. d'Hulst).
Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Paris, Fondation Custodia, and Brussels, Bibliothèque Albert 1er, Le Cabinet d’un Amateur: Dessins flamands et hollandais des XVIe et XVIIe siècles d’une collection privée d’Amsterdam, 1976-77, no. 107, pl. 97 (catalogue by J. Giltaij).
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, P.P. Rubens: Paintings, Oil Sketches, Drawings, 1977, no. 129, pp. 20 and 295 (catalogue by R.-A. d'Hulst, A. Monballieu et al.).
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Peter Paul Rubens: The Drawings, 2005, no. 28 (catalogue by A.-M. Logan and M.C. Plomp).
London, National Gallery, Rubens: A Master in the Making, 2005-6, no. 74 (catalogue by D. Jaffé and E. McGrath).
Old Master & British Drawings & Watercolours
6 ½ x 6 5/8 in. (16.3 x 16.1 cm.)
L. Burchard, 'Die Skizzen des jungen Rubens', in Sitzungsberichte der Kunstgeschichtlichen Gesellschaft, Berlin, 8 October 1926, p. 30, no. 2.
A. Scharf, ‘Little-Known Drawings by Rubens’, The Connoisseur, XCII, 1933, p. 249.
H.G. Evers, ‘”Frierende Venus” von Rubens’, Pantheon, XXIX, 1942, pp. 83-6, fig. 4.
G. Glück, Rubens, Van Dyck und ihr Kreis, Vienna, 1943, p. 382.
H.G. Evers, Rubens und sein Werk, neue Forschungen, Brussels, 1943, pp. 151, 162, fig. 51.
D. Rosen and J.S. Held, 'A Rubens Discovery in Chicago', Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, XIII-XIV, 1950-51, pp. 77 ff.
J.S. Held, Rubens: Selected Drawings, with an Introduction and a Critical Catalogue, London, 1959, p. 103, no. 24, and pl. 21.
L. Burchard and R.-A. d’Hulst, Rubens Drawings, Brussels, 1963, pp. 79-80, no. 46, illustrated.
C. White, Rubens and his World, London, 1968, p. 43, illustrated.
M. Kahr, ‘Delilah’, Art Bulletin, LIV, 1972, p. 295, fig. 18.
P.R. Adams, 'Peter Paul Rubens, Samson and Delilah', Cincinnati Art Museum Bulletin, X, no. 1, 1973, p. 3, fig. 4.
J.I. Kuznetsov, Rubens Drawings [in Russian], Moscow, 1974, no. 27, illustrated.
T. Buddensieg, ‘Simson und Dalila von Peter Paul Rubens’, Festschrift für Otto von Simson, Berlin, 1977, pp. 328-45.
M. Bernhard (ed.), Rubens: Handzeichnungen, Munich, 1977, illustrated p. 207.
D. Bodart, Rubens e l'incisione nella collezioni del Gabinetto Nazionale delle Stampe, exhib. cat., Rome, Farnesina, 1977, p. 16, under no. 5.
J.S. Held, The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens: A Critical Catalogue, Princeton, 1980, pp. 431-2, under no. 312.
C. Brown, Rubens, Samson and Delilah, National Gallery, London, 1983, p. 8, fig. 4.
J. Plesters, ‘“Samson and Delilah”: Rubens and the Art and Craft of Painting on Panel’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin, VIII, 1983, pp. 32-3, fig. 4.
J.S. Held, Rubens: Selected Drawings, Oxford, 1986, pp. 89-90, no. 51, fig. 53.
M.A. Scott, Dutch, Flemish and German Paintings in the Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, 1987, p. 116, under no. 41, fig. 2.
R.-A. d’Hulst and M. Vandenven, The Old Testament (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard: Part III), London, 1989, pp. 111, 114-5, 116 and 118, no. 31a, fig. 75.
M. Jaffé, Rubens: Catalogo completo, Milan, 1989, p. 165, under no. 89.
M.E. Wieseman, in Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, exhib. cat, Cincinnati, Art Museum, and other locations, 2004-05, p. 91, fig. 2.
D. Jaffé, 'Rubens's Samson and Delilah, an Antwerp Chimney Piece in Context', in Samson and Delilah: a Rubens Painting Returns, exhib. cat., Antwerp, Rockoxhuis and Vienna, Liechtenstein Museum, 2007-08, p. 16, fig. 11.
with R.W.P. de Vries, Amsterdam; from whom purchased by I.Q. van Regteren Altena on 20 December 1927 for 26 guilders ('387.t. A. v. Dijck. Samson & Delila').