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
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.
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.