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Samson and Delilah

This painting is regarded as one of Van Dyck’s first masterpieces, executed when he was around the age of 20 and working as Rubens’ studio assistant in Antwerp. It entered Bourgeois’ and Desenfans’ collection in 1783 as a work by Van Dyck, but the similarity in style between his early work and Rubens’ late work caused much confusion, and it was subsequently reattributed to the older master. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that it was rightfully given back to Van Dyck.

The subject is from the Old Testament Book of Judges which tells the story of the Jewish hero Samson and his love for Delilah. The Philistines - Samson’s sworn enemies - bribed Delilah with 1,100 pieces of silver to tell them where his strength lay in the hope that they could eventually defeat and capture him. After much persistence, Delilah discovered that his hair was the source of his power, and informed the Philistines.

The painting owes much to Rubens’ Samson and Delilah of 1610, now in the National Gallery, London. They both depict the tense moment a Philistine approaches the muscular Samson to cut off his locks as he lies asleep on Delilah’s lap. Rubens and Van Dyck treated Delilah as a prostitute, painting her half undressed in the company of an elderly procuress. Unlike Rubens’ Caravaggesque spot lit interior, Van Dyck’s figures are in an open-air loggia inspired by Venetian artists such as Titian and Tintoretto. He creates a sense of drama through the figures’ actions and expressions: Delilah gestures for silence, while the other women look on in anticipation and fear as the Philistine is poised with his shears.

Even at this young age, Van Dyck already displays his painterly skills in the realism of Samson’s dirty feet and in his accurate depiction of materials and surfaces. The rough texture and simplicity of Samson’s fur clothes contrast with the silk of Delilah’s dress and the rich gold pattern in the drapery.

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Currently on display

Sir Anthony van Dyck
Gallery 2
152.3 x 232 cm
Oil on canvas
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811
Accession number
Adopted by the Hambland Foundation, 1989