Peter Paul Rubens: Painting Samson and Delilah | National Gallery

Peter Paul Rubens: Painting Samson and Delilah | National Gallery


Good afternoon. My name is James Heard.
I’m one of the freelancers here. But I have a special association
with this painting because I am an artist, and my studio is in Antwerp,
the city, of course, of Rubens. And today we are actually celebrating the opening of this new space
in the National Gallery, the first for some 26 years. To do that, we’re going to look at this
ravishing painting by Peter Paul Rubens. Now, Antwerp was on the first line of defence between the Catholic south and what was happening in the north,
the Protestants. And the city moved
between the two religions. In 1585, the Spanish troops
starved the city into submission, and all the Calvinists there – the intellectual Calvinists,
the artisans, the bookbinders, whatever – they fled to Frankfurt and Amsterdam. So this was a cultural catastrophe. However, there were three men
that saved the day, and resuscitated this great, great city. And it coincided
with the Treaty of Antwerp in 1609. This established a truce for 12 years. And that was the moment
when Peter Paul Rubens came and painted endless
altar pieces for the churches there. These three men, who were they? The first one was a man
called Balthasar Moretus of the great printing family. This was established
by a man called Christophe Plantin, who made his money… He was printing emblem books, an extraordinary Bible
which had five languages side-by-side, the polyglot Bible. And he established this business and
it was passed on, finally, to Balthasar. Now he specialised in deluxe editions of very intellectual books. And his boyhood friend – indeed,
they went to school together – was Rubens. And there was a deal between the two. Rubens would design the illustrations, and
in return he would get a very fine book. This is how Rubens established
this amazing library he had. The Plantin-Moretus family was described as like the first internet family,
if you like. Christophe was described
as the Steve Jobs of his time, so he was a very, very important man, who was able to use printing
to move ideas across Europe. The second was a man
called Nicholas Rockox. Incidentally, the three people
that I mention still have their houses, which you can visit in Antwerp. And to do so gives you a real feeling of what the Flemish renaissance
was really like. So Nicholas Rockox
was equally multi-talented, highly educated. He was the Burgomaster, or actually,
they had two burgomasters – he was the Buitenburgermeester – and his job was to actually look after
the external affairs of the city. Not only that, but he was
a Justice of the Peace, a guild master of the Cloth Hall,
President of the Arquebusiers’ Guild, and Head of the Civic Guard. Do you get the drift? This man was extremely important, and the sort of friend
that Rubens would want to know. He is important because
he had a very fine patrician house, which still exists, in one of the oldest streets in Antwerp. It’s now down a side street,
owned by a bank. And, if you were
to come inside this house, it has a fine courtyard
with a wonderful formal garden, and in the Great Parlour – Groot Saleth –
was this painting. But it was not shown
in the way that you see it now, because it hung, as was normal
in Antwerp, above a fireplace. This was not any other fireplace,
this was a huge fireplace. And basically, where the top is,
was where the bottom was. So you would see this painting
from a totally different angle from which you are seeing it today. This is one of the problems of museums. We have to actually organise paintings
in a rather different way from which they were originally located. In their original locations,
we wouldn’t see most of these paintings. So, in 2007, winter, there was an exhibition when this painting
went back to its original location, and it was an extraordinary thing to see. What you need to understand
is that here, along this wall, are a whole series of windows. When you look at the light
in the painting, you can see how Rubens
has actually accommodated the windows. And we know that Rubens
often painted on-site. He painted one of the great altar pieces,
‘The Raising of the Cross’, for a church in Antwerp that is now gone. But he painted it on-site,
and he persuaded a sailor, or probably a captain
of one of the great boats there, to raise a sail
in front of the altar piece so that nobody could see him at work. And, I suspect that,
since he knew the owner of this house, he probably painted some of it –
not all of it, I don’t know – in situ. And one of the things that I noticed, is that the elongation
of the soldiers here was corrected
because of the angle of vision. Not only that, but –
I don’t know if you agree with me – it seems somewhat flat, this painting. But, in situ,
it looked entirely different. It had great, great depth, and indeed, the two figures
seemed to move back into space. It’s a bit unfair of me to tell you
that it looked better in another place. So there you go. And of course, the last member
of this trio was Rubens himself. Rubens had just arrived back from Italy. He had three teachers in Antwerp. One was Tobias Verhaecht, a very fine landscape painter
and a relative of Rubens’. He didn’t stay as an apprentice very long. He then went to Adam van Noort, and then again
to a man called Otto van Veen. Neither of these painters
seemed to have much talent. If you look at their work,
you can’t connect them with Rubens. So what I’m really saying was,
he seemed to be self-taught. He goes off to Italy,
where he spends eight years. And the only reason he comes back
is he heard that his mother was dying. So he races on his horse back to Antwerp.
Sadly, she was dead. But he never moved back from Antwerp. When he was made royal painter, the deal was
that he didn’t have to move to Brussels. So you can see his house and his studio, but this was painted long before
he built the great Renaissance studio that you see today. This is painted 1609 to 1610, so he’d been back in Antwerp
only a few years when Nicolas Rockox commissioned
him to paint this and other pictures. So, what is the subject matter? Well, I think you’ll see
that it’s fairly obvious. We have an Israelite – Samson –
who, in essence, was a terrorist. He slaughtered 1,000 Philistines with the jaw bone of an ass,
you’ll recall. He tore apart a lion with his own hands, and that’s the connection
with Hercules, isn’t it? Not only that, but he took 300 foxes –
this is a rather extraordinary tale – 300 foxes,
and he tied torches to their tails, and then sent them
into the corn fields of the Israelites. I’m not quite sure how that was managed. So quite obviously, the Philistines
wanted to sort out this man. So, they persuaded Delilah, by paying her a lot of coins, to seduce Samson and find out his secret. And if you read your Bible, it took her quite a long time
to discover what the secret was. We now know, of course,
it was in his locks. And supposedly, he had never actually
cut his hair since he was born. So he’s got rather short hair,
it seems to me, there. So what we have here,
is Samson asleep, having made love. Men always fall asleep after making love. And he’s completely out. This is the moment that a servant
comes into what appears to be, basically, a brothel, to cut his locks. Meanwhile, the Philistine soldiers
are waiting until that moment and they can arrest him
and put out his eye. So it’s a very tragic story. What I want to look at, to begin with,
is the light in the painting. I’ve already mentioned
that there was this row of windows. Of course, in northern houses,
you do get very large windows. The further north you go,
the more windows you have. And if you look at the painting,
we do have a brazier here. But, somehow,
that brazier gives not such great light. You get the feeling
that the light comes from the windows, for instance, on the foot there,
on her foot… So you have the light here. Some people have made the point that there would have been light
from the fire underneath. I’m not sure about that. Some light, possibly, to give a certain
sort of warmth to the painting. Now, when Rubens was in Rome,
he of course came across Caravaggio. Now look at the painting. Although, interestingly,
Caravaggio never painted a bare flame. They were always hidden lights. One man who did,
was a German painter called Elsheimer, who was a friend of Rubens, and when he died,
Rubens was extremely sad, and said, “If only he had lived,” and made
a comment that he was rather lazy. I think that was unfair, because he was very melancholic
and probably rather depressed, and he makes these very small paintings
with all these different… Usually at night,
with all these different light sources. So I think we have
to take that into account. But starting with the brazier, you’ll notice that the wind
is actually blowing the flames. In Venice, there’s a painting
that Rubens would have seen when he was on his Italian sojourn, and that is the painting
of ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Mark’. In the top, there’s a very similar lamp
being blown in the same way. Maybe this is an art historical game,
if you like, but he was like a sponge
when he travelled around Italy. He found all these
different source materials, and some of you will find another. “Why haven’t you mentioned Tintoretto?”
for instance. So we have this brazier
and the light is actually moving us, or the flames are moving us,
to the old lady – the Madame, not mentioned in the Bible – and then you have a candle flame. Again, the flame points us
up to the figure of – I don’t know whether you can see her – in a niche, Venus, with Cupid. And although books say that Cupid
is blindfolded, Cupid is not blindfolded. Cupid is gagged, which is interesting. The lights sort of take us on a journey. There’s another light underneath the place where the statue is, and you can just about
see this oil lamp there. So we’ve already got three, and then of course we’ve got
the torches carried by the Philistines. So, he’s moving us around via the lights. Lights are like a kind of visual magnet,
aren’t they, in a painting. So two or three sources for the lights. What about the poses? Well, anybody looking at this
will get a feeling, especially as
there’s the exhibition upstairs, that there’s something Michelangelo-esque
about the figure of Samson. When Rubens was in Italy, he made
endless drawings, endless sketches, and these were used in his studio
by his fellow artists, in the studio working for him, people like
Van Dyck, to the end of his life. And he drew, and he drew, and he drew. What was clever about Rubens, was that he was able
to actually use these sources, but change them to his own ends. One of the things he was able to do was to take a pose by Michelangelo
and reverse it. Now this is very difficult to do,
mentally. He was a real wizard, if you like. So starting with the figure here
of Samson… This huge great figure, and you feel that
if he were to stretch out, he’d burst out of the frame. It’s very clever, you feel like
he’s coiled up like a spring, although, in fact, he’s asleep. This was inspired by
‘The Torso of the Belvedere’ in the Vatican. There is a drawing of that, and if you take that drawing
and turn it on its side, you have this figure of Samson
with all these extraordinary muscles. Then we come to the figure of Delilah. We have, in this gallery,
in the small room, a painting by… not actually by Michelangelo,
because the original has disappeared, but it’s a copy after Michelangelo
of ‘Leda and the Swan’, and the pose is identical to that. We know that Michelangelo
was in Florence in the Medici Chapel, where he made drawings
of one of the figures – of ‘Night’,
which has a very similar pose. So we have a classical sculpture,
we have Michelangelo… Anything else? It’s extraordinary,
all these different influences. But, to my mind, he puts them into a melting point
and makes them absolutely like Rubens. What fascinates me about this painting is there are certain checks and balances. For instance,
if we look at this man here, the servant who is cutting off
the locks of Samson… Is it not the same model as this one? They look identical, don’t they? You know this strange relationship that we read about
between captors and captives? And I was thinking about this because this is the year
we celebrate 500 years of Luther nailing his 95 Theses up
on the door of Wittenberg Castle. And interestingly enough,
Luther, this very radical priest, was protected by Frederick the Wise. Who could be more Catholic than him? He had in his castle –
let me get this right – 18,970 different relics. That seems rather a lot, really. And yet these two, who never met,
had this strange relationship. So there seems to be
a strange relationship between these two, and then there’s
an equally strange relationship between Delilah and the woman above. Delilah – what do you think?
26 or 27, possibly? And the old lady – I don’t know, maybe 60?
Something like that. Is this not the same woman
as she gets older? Is Rubens making
another correspondence there? Is he making a comment
that once her looks have gone, she will have to think of another way of
actually captivating people in the world? That life is not just
about facial beauty, perhaps. What, for me, is important,
is what actually happened to Rubens? I don’t think he’s taking sides,
either to Samson or to Delilah. When he was young, the family had to flee like everyone else
because they were… …Protestants. They were Calvinists. So they fled, basically, to Germany. And Rubens’ father
was a very important jurist in Antwerp. And what actually happened
was that they moved to Germany, and the father actually had a relationship
with Anna of Saxony, who was the second wife
of William of Orange. And there was a huge, huge, great scandal, and in 1570, he confessed that
they nearly broke the bed in their affair. So the father had to go to jail, I think, for two years. And Rubens’ mother wrote
the most poignant, forgiving letters to get him out of jail, which eventually worked. On the way back from Siegen… …the father died. They came back to Antwerp and they converted to Catholicism. So this was a young man
that knew both religions, if you like. Now Rubens, as we know, was a very measured character. We know that, for instance, when
he was out with his friends in Antwerp, they all got drunk, but he was the one
that always remained sober. A very sober character.
Measured, indeed. Very, very pious. And I think… Well, remember he was a diplomat
in his later years. I think he was not one to take sides. So I think these kinds of relationships
are very clever in the way that he’s presented them to us. I’m always looking at drapery in paintings
because they tell their own story, in the way that… We don’t look at drapery
in the way that we look at faces, and sometimes artists will use drapery
to make a particular point. Look at this purple hanging. It’s like a Sword of Damocles
hanging above Samson and, interestingly enough, when this painting was analysed
by the Scientific Department, they discovered that
there was no purple paint. He had very cleverly used this red
with some black to create purple – in other words, a very limited palette. And then there’s the drapery on her arm. It seems to be scrunched up,
like when you twist a towel. To me, it’s suggestive,
because what is actually happening… This is the moment when she has actually betrayed Samson. She must be on tenterhooks, and for me,
that drapery really expresses it. Contrast that arm with the arm of Samson. You really feel he’s completely relaxed, that he’s out for the whole night,
if you like. They are almost parallel, but not quite. A very different sort of sequence
of lines and shapes, and I think that again
is very, very telling. He has put the point of interest
not in the middle, but to one side, as you can see here. And it’s a rather extraordinary muddling
of hands and fingers. It’s like a railway junction in a way,
isn’t it? And it’s said that crossed hands
are always a sign of treachery, and that’s something you really get there. But for me, what I find astonishing
is Delilah’s hand, which doesn’t seem to quite rest. She’s almost nervous
of actually stroking him. One of my friends recently,
just a moment ago, said it seems as though it’s floating, and I think that’s absolutely right. And it also has an unusual combination because Samson has got that feeling of… …somebody who has been outside
all the time. He’s swarthy, and it rather clashes with her pinkness. And of course Rubens
was a great, great scholar. He would have been familiar with the idea, but in Roman times, sculptures of men
tended to be painted brown because they lived outside. Women were painted whiter, pink,
and so on. And that seems
to be a reference to the past. So it’s been suggested
that we are in a brothel, and why not? Other people have said, “Why on earth
should this distinguished lettered man want this subject in a place
where people would see it – important people would see it?” Well, it seems to me
it’s full of morality, in fact, almost saying, “Don’t go there.” And it’s also saying about Samson
that this man actually wrought havoc and neither side
is to be particularly admired. But essentially, and we don’t know
how the commission worked… Did Nicholas Rockox say,
“I want this subject,” or was it suggested by Rubens? After all, they were friends. They probably had an interesting time
over the dinner table discussing it. For me, what is extraordinary,
is this wonderful red drapery, which really sings out of the painting. And if you imagine this in winter
with the fire underneath, it must have been quite extraordinary. Now the shape of the painting is very odd. If you look around this gallery, you’ll see that most paintings
have one side longer than another. And that’s much easier
for a painter to work with because the longer side in landscape
gives you the distance in that direction, and the portrait is also very important
because it gives you that vertical. When you’ve got something square –
it’s very unusual… I can’t think of many other people
who would do it – Monet is one… But it was determined by its position
above the fireplace… …and expertly filled with so many different elements. And… …the drapery down here,
this wonderful golden drapery, almost certainly, I think, must
have linked with the curtain underneath, because when they were not being used,
there was a small curtain below. And then we have the figured carpet, a great deal of softness under Delilah. And if you look carefully,
there is some softness around Samson. It looks as though he’s actually wearing
the skin of the lion because of the way that the light
just catches here and there little hairs. And one of the marvellous things
about this painting is the light itself. If you look at the figure here
of the servant, there’s a tiny pinpoint of light
on that side. Why has Rubens done that? The reason he has done that
is so you can actually link one side of the painting
where the man’s shoulder is to the other side. It draws your attention to the hair. Put that out and the hair disappears
into the background. So the thinking behind this
is really quite extraordinary. Again, the other part of the painting
that I find very, very expressive is the head gear of the old crone, which actually seems to have
the same folds as her skin itself. In other words,
he’s creating relationships all the time. An important relationship, which is kept
rather quiet in the background, are these verticals here,
which you can probably barely see. They’re very important because
he has established a pattern of verticals against all these complex,
sometimes, diagonals. Samson, basically,
is two diagonals put together and of course a diagonal
is an unstable line in itself, and you’ve basically got two there. She is more upright. So these are very important. They’re a pause against all these swirling curves… …of the drapery. And the drapery is clearly inspired
by what is seen in Italy. Northern drapery, even at this time, tended to be much more angular
because it was based on carvings – limewood carvings and the like, where it’s easier to actually cut angles
than it is a curve. If you look at our Italian paintings, you’ll find they love curves
in their drapery. It’s almost the distinction
between the two kinds of art. So, again, the drapery is something
that is actually used from his Italian days. Particularly interesting is her waist. Do you see how
he has actually used the drapery rather like a bandage binding her,
as if it were, but also expressing
the shape of her waist? Then, we have the contrast between
the very delicate little feet here in contrast to the clomping great foot of Samson. It’s almost as though,
coming back from Italy, he said,
“Right, I’m going to make a painting that actually shows off my skill
in composition – all these checks and counterbalances.” The other thing is, and I can see it very clearly,
but I don’t know whether you can, is this painting is made on wood. Rubens liked to work on wood
throughout his life, but if he was working for a client,
say Charles I, he would work on canvas. Because the canvas is lighter,
it could be rolled up and sent to London, what have you. But this is on wood, and it seems to be
in excellent conditions. You’re looking at it
and the colours really sing. And I think it makes a wonderful beginning
to this new space in the National Gallery. Thank you very much.

26 Comments

  • ElianePino says:

    I love these talks, thank you very much for sharing with us!

  • Michael Allen CPA says:

    I've seen worse

  • Terry Francis says:

    Thank you for placing "Talks for all" on YouTube please keep this free programme on at The NG. Happy Birthday!

  • Alan Partridge says:

    Some poor history here, I'm afraid especially about Luther, and a silly mistake about the foxes being released into Israelite fields, check the book of Judges to see it was Philistine fields that were torched. Small points but if you stand up as an expert you might as well try to get it right?

  • Anna's Burning Curiosity says:

    I enjoyed that thanks, If you have time can you have a look at my channel 🙂

  • LemonDrop says:

    Samson wasn't a terrorist, Sir.
    Judges 13:1-5, 24-25 (KJV) 13 And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.
    2 And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the family of the Danites, whose
    name was Manoah; and his wife was barren, and bare not.
    3 And the angel of the Lord appeared unto the woman, and said unto her, Behold now, thou art barren, and bearest not: but thou shalt conceive, and bear a son.
    4 Now therefore beware, I pray thee, and drink not wine nor strong drink, and eat not any unclean thing:
    5 For, lo, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head: for the child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb: and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.
    24 And the woman bare a son, and called his name Samson: and the child grew, and the Lord blessed him.
    25 And the Spirit of the Lord began to move him at times in the camp of Dan between Zorah and Eshtaol.

  • Matthew Eyre says:

    I wasn't too keen on the propensity to make assumptions BUT I really enjoyed this- very entertaining.

  • AMARA Mimi says:

    😳 woww I love that painting!! It's amazingly thanks for sharing I like it !!

  • Jakub Lustig says:

    Good Try of insight into work of Master! Thanks for placing!

  • alex boller says:

    An amazing work. Thankyou for this.

  • Al Macasaet says:

    Excellent – thank you very much

  • J Du says:

    Fantastic lecture! Thank you for sharing!

  • xyzllii says:

    Informative…but hate the term…old crone.

  • Marco Giusti says:

    I'll n'y a pas que rubens thank you for speech Giusti the painter

  • Lillian Nieswender says:

    It is wonderful to learn about these great painting and painters, thank you very much.

  • Anne Busch says:

    Absolutely love this lecture! Thank you for uploading ❤

  • Divertedflight says:

    Aha! The fact that the painting was originally seen insitu from below, explains why historical etchings of it pre the development of photography showed the painting in a more rectangular format. As this is how it would of appeared above a large fireplace in a medium sized room. I'd read of one person who claimed that this picture was actually an early copy, a fake of sorts, squeezed into a more square panel! I wonder if they should rehang the painting higher up the wall to regain the correct perspective? Perhaps with a fireplace front underneath.

  • Gene Patrick Vi says:

    one of rubens top 5 best works

  • Marianna Kovalev says:

    Thank you for shearing.

  • maryse azoulay says:

    Poor stupid men ..

  • Gary MacMillan says:

    Did he just describe an Israeli as a terrorist? Left wing cunt.

  • Andrew Dunscomb says:

    Strange, but at first glance this doesn't look like a Rubens to me. At first view it seems garish and lit strangely. Then when I look closer, other things pop out to me – Samson's back looks anatomically awkward, and the statue in the background looks, well, sloppy. And the foot is cut off too – which is kind of a mistake in composition, isn't it? Also, just in general when I see it, the oil paint itself seems to be inexpertly applied, in that it doesn't capture the texture of skin or the texture of the patterned carpet at the bottom very well…these are all things that every other Rubens work I've ever seen are handled masterfully, sublimely, really. This seems like someone trying to paint like Rubens.

  • Much Doge Very Wow says:

    Great story teller

  • Cássio says:

    Thankyou very much, Professor. Wonderful lesson about Rubens. Great!

  • Mark Thompson says:

    Thank you so much for a brilliant lecture.

  • A i says:

    Very enjoyable but me thinks the curator speaks to much his own artistic licence?… I've heard 6 different versions of the painting in question, to be fare it's what paintings should do, evoke each person's own view….the fact or biography of the painter remain the same, however little we know about most of them.

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