Picture of the month

Peter Paul Rubens, Samson and Delilah, about 1609–10

Rubens’s sensual portrayal of deceit borrows its well-known narrative from the bible and technique from two Renaissance greats

Peter Paul Rubens, ‘Samson and Delilah’, about 1609-10

Peter Paul Rubens, Samson and Delilah, about 1609–10

Samson was an Israelite hero endowed with immense strength which enabled him to defeat his enemies, in particular the Philistines. All previous attempts by the Philistines to capture Samson had failed so they paid Delilah – the woman he loved – to discover the secret of his strength. After several red herrings, Samson eventually revealed to Delilah that were his long hair to be cut, he would be immediately weakened.

Rubens depicts the couple here, in the dramatic moment immediately prior to Samson’s capture by the Philistines. Delilah is soothing Samson so that he remains in a deep slumber, while a rather nervous looking barber cuts his hair. The Philistines are shown in the background, anxiously waiting to see if Delilah is correct about Samson’s hair being the source of his strength. The barber is illuminated by a candle held by an old lady that also gives Delilah’s skin a creamy glow, in contrast to the swarthy, muscular back of the sleeping Samson.

In a niche behind the central figures is a statue of the goddess of love, Venus, with Cupid – a reference to the cause of Samson's fate.

Samson’s exaggerated musculature owes a debt to the figures of Michelangelo while the lighting effects and the dark shadows (chiaroscuro) are influenced by Caravaggio. Rubens is acknowledging the impact of two of the most influential painters of this time, while at the same time asserting the originality and power of his own work. He is showing that he can not only absorb the work of Italian masters but that he has aspirations to surpass it.

Peter Paul Rubens
about 1609-10
Peter Paul Rubens: 'Samson and Delilah'

More paintings from the collection

After Peter Paul Rubens: 'The Horrors of War'
The Horrors of War
After Peter Paul Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens: 'The Judgement of Paris'
The Judgement of Paris
Peter Paul Rubens
Andrea Mantegna: 'Samson and Delilah'
Samson and Delilah
Andrea Mantegna