Samson, the Jewish hero, fell in love with Delilah. She was bribed by the Philistines, and discovered that his strength came from his hair which had never been cut. While he was asleep it was cut, Samson was drained of his strength and the Philistines were able to capture him. (Old Testament, Judges 16: 17-20). Rubens depicts a candlelit interior; the Philistines wait at the door, one of their number cuts Samson's hair, while an elderly woman provides extra light. In a niche behind is a statue of the goddess of love, Venus, with Cupid - a reference to the cause of Samson's fate.
This painting was commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox, alderman of Antwerp, for his town house in 1609-10. It shows the influence of the antique, as well as Michelangelo and Caravaggio. There is a preparatory drawing (private collection, Amsterdam) and a modello (Cincinnati Museum of Art).
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next… the terrible, the traumatic, and the tragic can be, as any visitor to the National Gallery knows, the stuff of great art. Indeed, it’s such familiar subject matter that we’re rarely struck by the disjunction between the pleasure we take in looking at pictures and the emotional and physical pain they often portray. I asked art historian Jacqui Ansell why this was the case, and she suggested we take a look at a sumptuous work by Rubens that depicts just such a painful scene.
Miranda Hinkley: Well I’ve come to have a look at one of the Gallery’s best-loved paintings – it’s a painting of Samson and Delilah by Rubens and it depicts a moment in the very well known story where Delilah has managed to discover the secret of Samson’s strength which is his long hair and she’s betraying him, she’s arranging for it to be cut off and there’s a man standing over him as he sleeps in her lap with the scissors.
Jacqui Ansell: Yes, it’s one of those paintings that I think calls you over from a distance and it’s also one of those paintings that I think appeals to lots of different people and appeals to our psyche and to some of our fears, I think. The phrase ‘in Delilah’s lap’ in the 17th century meant to be visiting a prostitute and I think that’s quite evident here, there’s a bit of a castration anxiety, I think, going on here.
This is a painting that Brian Sewell says ‘appeals to your fingernails’. Of course I’m not quite sure what he means by that but I think he means that huge expanse of bare back invites you to want to rake your nails down that bare flesh. So immediately we’ve got this association between pleasure and pain and almost the idea of the viewer – the voyeur – taking pleasure in somebody else’s pain.
Miranda Hinkley: There’s something about Samson’s vulnerability in this painting which is quite arresting and the way that she’s looking down at him… I mean her hand is very gently on his back, but there’s obviously some kind of evil intent there.
Jacqui Ansell: Yes, I think that one of the most striking things about this painting is the interplay of the hands, because if you look at Samson and that huge back, if you look down his arm, his arm is hanging limp. It’s flaccid, indicative of his spent force, and his hand I always think, his other hand, is placed proprietarily in her lap and he’s resting his head in her lap in a very trusting manner. But I think the most important hand is the hand she places on his back as you point out.
Now one of the things that strikes me about this painting is that it is a collective sharp intake of breath – we’re actually looking at a moment, a moment before something very important happens, and what she really doesn’t want to happen is for him to wake up. So she has this hand placed on his back and it’s as though she’s calming him down, as though saying ‘there, there, darling’ and it’s very soothing, but on the other hand of course she’s protecting her own interest, because she doesn’t want him to wake up.
So then of course there’s a sense of what’s going to happen next, and you’ve got the idea that he is about to lose his strength as you pointed out – or rather, the barber is going to cut that lock of hair, and there is this moment of tension. Is that actually going to work? Is he going to lose his strength? We’ve got a load of soldiers waiting in the doorway there – look at the way in which Rubens has controlled that narrative, created that suspense, he’s given us this chiarascura, this light/dark effect where they’re shrouded in the darkness – illuminated faces, anxiously waiting. Is this going to be the trick that finally works?
Miranda Hinkley: Part of what makes the painting so sensuous and so appealing to look at is all of this fabric. You’ve got the rich carpet, the red of her dress and then there’s this kind of purple drapery over the top.
Jacqui Ansell: Yes, I think there definitely is the interplay of the sensuous fabric and the sensuality of the figures here, and if you think that this was designed to go above a fireplace then those rich, warm colours that sing out at you were clearly very important for that particular setting. So here we are as a viewer in the present day, admiring the youth and the beauty and the strength of Samson and the skill of the artist painting this, but actually of course what we’re really taking so much pleasure from is something that’s going to end, not only in his arrest by the soldiers, but his eventual blinding, his humiliation as he’s made to grind and do woman’s work, and then of course this culminates in the event in the temple, when his hair grows back, his strength comes back to him, and he commits suicide rather spectacularly as he brings the temple down on all of his tormentors.
Miranda Hinkley: I mean, there are a lot of paintings in the Gallery that show very difficult or violent or kind of traumatic scenes and maybe when we look at them and we derive pleasure and interest from looking at them, it’s really that sense of schadenfreude, that 'thank God that’s not me up there'…
Jacqui Ansell: Exactly. So you’ve got a painting which appeals not only to our fingernails, but also to our eyes – it appeals to our mind and our moral senses, but we of course can gaze upon this and we can draw from it whatever we like... if it’s sensuous pleasure, or sensual pleasure, or the moral message... but one thing’s for sure, we’re not going to be blinded for giving into our sexual sin and we can gain pleasure from looking at this painting for ever more.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): That was Jacqui Ansell, talking about Rubens’s 'Samson and Delilah'.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty Nine, January 2010