Painting Review: Rubens – Samson and Delilah

For the second annotation I choose a narrative painting from Rubens, Samson and Delilah. I thought I’d jot down some initial thoughts & research on it since I can never fit it all into the one annotation page and my memory can’t hold it all.

Peter Paul Rubens, 1577 - 1640 Samson and Delilah about 1609-10 Oil on wood, 185 x 205 cm Bought, 1980 NG6461 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6461
Peter Paul Rubens, 1577 – 1640
Samson and Delilah
about 1609-10
Oil on wood, 185 x 205 cm
Bought, 1980
NG6461
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6461

So in line with the review of the Arnolfini Portrait, I’ve tried to apply the techniques I learned in reading about the OU study diamond to this painting review too. Again, the grid format wasn’t that great for the blog so I’ve split into more of a questions and answers format.

Effects & techniques:

  1. What initially catches your eye? Where do you go next? And after that? To the group of four figures of Delilah, Samson, and the old woman and man
  2. Where do you end up? Do your eyes stray away from the work altogether? The men at the door
  3. Is there anything that you didn’t notice at first but saw later in your reading? The items on the shelves behind
  4. Did your eyes keep coming back to a particular part of the art work? The massive form of Samson
  5. Is there anything that you didn’t look at or thought wasn’t important? Not really

Colour:

    1. Has a wide or narrow palette of colours been used? A narrow colour palate with lots of warm colours in it makes it feel sensuous. The only cool colours are on the interlopers
    2. Have contrasting colours been placed next to each other? Not really, this brings a warm harmony to the painting.
    3. Are there more warm colours than cool colours or vice versa? Many more warm colours makes the place seem inviting sensuous.
    4. Would you describe the colours as being bright or dull? Are there more bright colours than dull colours (or vice versa)? There are both, the background is a dullish wooden brown but the colours of the satin materials are bright. This brings the foreground as the main focus of the painting.
    5. In what way is dark and light colour used?

I. How wide is the range of colour values featuring in the art work? There is a wide range of colour values.

II. Are contrasting colour values present in the art work? Use of contrasting colour values pick out areas of interest and are heavily used to dramatic effect to pick out the details and two focus areas al la Caravaggio.

III. Are contrasting colour values used to model three-dimensional forms? Contrasting colour values are also used to model three-dimensional forms of the folds of the dress, lush fabrics and the man’s massive muscled body.

IV. In what way are the colour values distributed throughout the art work? The distribution of the colour values helps pull your eye around the composition, from the four figures in the foreground where the largest patch of light is, to the smaller patch on the right hand side where the men are hovering in the doorway. Your eye flows from the ‘front’ to the ‘back’ even through it’s a flat painted surface the illusion is made using lighting and definition

Medium:

  1. Does the medium impose any limitations on the way the artist works, or allow any particular effects? The oil paint has been carefully blended to make the soft, seamless shadows to model the various textures, you really feel the soft skin stretched over the muscle on the man’s back , against the more directly applied highlights for the satin.
  2. Is the medium used unconventionally or is the medium itself unconventional and, if so, does this contribute to the expressive effect of the art work? This seems a pretty conventional use.
  3. Does the medium used suggest a particular mood? the medium adds to the sensuality of the mood and the impressive scale also.
  4. Does the medium used prompt the spectator to read the work in a particular way? not really

Composition:

Representation of depth Technique: Samson & Delilah Effect: Samson and Delilah
(a) overlapping Y there is a clear front and back to the room, the front two figures overlap with the old woman and man cutting the hair. Also the edgy of Samsons body is overlapping the opening door
(b) diminishing scale Y the men at the door are much smaller than the main four figures, clearly in the background
(c) atmospheric perspective Y the brightest part of the room is also the front of the scene, Samson, Delilah and the bed area
(d) vertical placement Y Samson’s arm is foreshortened such that his hand is the same size as his foot which is further back. His arm leads up and back to his face and the face of the man behind him. Above that there is a statue in a niche on the wall in the background behind them
(e) linear perspective Y the opening door displays the linear perspective
(f) modelling Y the modelling of the various textures in the room, especially all the folds in her dress, the patterned blanket and the muscles on Samson’s back make the illusion realistic

 

Use of lines:

Directional lines (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal): There is a strong diagonal line of Samson’s back across the middle of the picture. There is a grounding horizontal line of the bed at the bottom of the picture and repeating little horizontals in the background, the shelves, the man’s cutting arm, the door frame. there are verticals too, the arm &, Samson’s face, the man’s face and then the statue already mentioned, also the shelves, niche, the doorway and figures of the waiting men all provide vertical interest

Contour lines – can also be used to outline forms; such contour lines can be described in terms of their thickness and sharpness. there are contour lines around the moulding in the furniture and the modelling of the cloth which are quite thick but seen as shadows and add to the illusion.

Meaning – initial thoughts from the observed ‘evidence’

Clearly something amiss is going on, if you didn’t know the story you can sense that the man is asleep after being seduced and people are sneakily cutting his hair. Armed men in the background seem to be glaring at each other to keep quiet and not wake the man. He is big and muscly but still, should they be worried? Clearly he’s been tricked by the woman (she still has her breasts out) but she looks a bit sorry. The old woman looks on in tension, biting her lip, that the man will wake up. You feel sorry for the deeply asleep man.

Context & Meaning:

This is based on a bible story (Old Testament, Judges 16: 17-20) where a Jewish hero, Samson, fell in love with Delilah. He was very strong and couldn’t be defeated by the Philistines so they bribed her to find out the secret to his great strength and help to capture him. She asked him many times and each time he gave her a false answer but eventually he gave up and told her that his strength was there because his hair had never been cut. So while he was sleeping they cut his hair, his strength left him and they captured, blinded, imprisoned and humiliated him. Then when his hair grew back his strength returned and he pulled a temple down on everyone, including himself and all the Philistines rulers.

This picture depicts the moment when they are about to cut his hair, they don’t actually know that’ll work this time and if it doesn’t and he wakes up they are all in trouble. Delilah places a soothing hand on his back to calm him so he doesn’t wake and kill them all. The Philistines wait just outside the door, trying to be quite. It’s quite a tense painting. It’s also sensuous, with all the fabric in the setting. Clearly they’ve just been intimate so it can be seen as a moral tale of sin only leads to trouble. He is very vulnerable in this moment, and trusting of Delilah, so can also been taken as ‘love hurts’ because she’s so thoroughly betrayed his trust.

“In a niche behind is a statue of the goddess of love, Venus, with Cupid – a reference to the cause of Samson’s fate.” (National Gallery, 2016a)

Delilah is not a prostitute (apart from the bribe) in the story but according to the Art historian Jacqui Ansell (in the little audio clip on the gallery page) the phrase ‘in Delilah’s lap’ meant to visit a prostitute in the 17th century when this was painted.

According to the blurb on the National Gallery page, this painting was commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox, alderman of Antwerp (and personal friend of Rubens), for his town house in 1609-10. Apparently it was designed to hang above a giant fireplace, so all the warm colours would look all the more sumptuous in that setting. The painting is hung at the same height in the gallery because it is a best height from which to appreciate the perspective.

“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).” (National Gallery, 2016a)

A modello is a small preparatory oil sketch on a wood panel, they could be used as a draft to get the clients approval and as a guide to composition for the finished work. Rubens often then handed over much of the preparation and painting of the main version to his assistants and pupils, carrying out only the final finishing touches.

This painting, like the Arnolfini Portrait, is on Oak as was the early Netherlandish tradition. This is made up of 6 horizontal planks glued together, probably by a professional panel maker. However, since then it’s been planed down to 3mm and stuck onto blockboard as an old method of preservation so there are no original markings on the back or edges. The panel was prepared with a white chalk ground with a binding of animal glue, another Netherlandish tradition. He also uses a limited number of pigments. Interestingly, although there is no green in the picture, some of the brownish paint on the old woman’s dress are no longer recognisable but have a high concentration of copper, which may have been green and browned with age so we may not be seeing it as it was originally painted.

Visit in person:

The painting was so large, I almost couldn’t fit it all into the photograph but I wanted to remember how vivid the colours were and the online reproduction (see above) doesn’t really convey that.

Peter Paul Rubens, 1577 - 1640 Samson and Delilah about 1609-10 Oil on wood, 185 x 205 cm Bought, 1980
Peter Paul Rubens, 1577 – 1640
Samson and Delilah
about 1609-10
Oil on wood, 185 x 205 cm
Bought, 1980

The painting is hung quite high but it seems to look much better according to the perspective than when you see it online, which is line with what I read about it being desinged to be seen at this height.

 

References:

Biblegateway. (2016) Judges 16 – Samson and Delilah At: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Judges%2016
(Accessed on 5 Oct 16)
National Gallery. (2016a) Peter Paul Rubens – Samson and Delilah At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/peter-paul-rubens-samson-and-delilah
(Accessed on 5 Oct 16)
Plesters, J. ‘”Samson and Delilah”: Rubens and the Art and Craft of Painting on Panel’. National Gallery Technical Bulletin Vol 7, pp 30–49.
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/technical-bulletin/plesters1983
(Accessed on 5 Oct 16)

Open University. (2016) Making sense of art history At: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/making-sense-art-history/content-section-0
(Accessed on 15 Aug 16)

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