Saturday, April 18, 2009

Samson and Delilah

The artists of the past were masters of visual storytelling. But which one is your favorite when it comes to Samson and Delilah?

In the famous story from Judges 16, Samson lets his wife Delilah know the secret of his God-given strength. If anyone cuts off his hair, he will lose his power. Delilah leaks the secret to Samson’s enemies, the Philistines. As Samson sleeps, Delilah—or one of her servants—cuts his seven locks. The Philistines arrive to bind him and put out his eyes.

Let’s look at how six different artists interpret the tragic tale.

Anthony Van Dyck shows Samson sleeping heavily on his wife’s fine dress as her servant closes in with the scissors. (Van Dyck 1)

Van Dyck’s alternate version shows Samson wakened to the reality of his betrayal as the cords of the Philistines tighten round him. (Van Dyck 2)

Matthias Stom gives Delilah the scissors. His picture is a psychological study, with a low hidden light source adding to the mystery and intrigue.

Court displays Samson awake. His muscle-bound body is parallel to the picture plane. Each of his antagonists grasps him at a different point. He himself reaches back to find his hair has been cut off.

Rembrandt shows Delilah with Samson asleep in her lap. She turns back to the man with the shears, who is spotlit behind her.

Peter Paul Rubens painting gives emphasis to the heavily muscled back and arm of Samson draped across Delilah as her servant delicately does his deed.

Solomon Solomon creates a volcano of energy by uniting three figures into a single shape. Delilah waves the lock of hair with cruel glee as Samson writhes against his captors.
UPDATE: I conducted a blog poll to see which was the readers' favorite and the winner was Solomon Solomon with 60 votes. The next highest vote-getter was the Matthias Stom (39 votes). The best known old masters: Rubens (13), Van Dyck 2 (11), and Rembrandt (6) were far behind, but as some of you pointed out, I overlooked an important Rembrandt, "The Blinding of Samson," link.


Erik Bongers said...

To my surprise, the Rembrandt is my least favourite. Where's Samson? Why is Delilah holding a rolled up carpet? Oh, is that Samson!? I see...I hadn't noticed.

Van Dyck has two very very different interpretations of the scene. The first one doesn't express much drama, but the second one is vivid. The whole crowd seems to be falling to the left, starting with a standing man on the right and the woman leaning backward on the left. This gives a very strong sense of motion.

Court and Solomon also have strong twirling movement, but look more manneristic.

Of the 'non-action' paintings, being the first Van Dyck, the Rubens and the Stom, I think Matthias Stom has the strongest image, as it closes in on the subject and indeed closes in on the psychological level as well.

Favorite? I'll pick two.
The second Van Dyck and the Matthias Stom.

badbot said...

i've chosen Rembrandt. i think it's probably the best interpretation of this story ( obviously it's according to my own feelings ).

there is two "schools" of painting here, the action scenes and the "non-action" or slow action scenes.

usually i really dig actions paintings, but for this story, it's seems better to me to tell a sad, slow motion and "victim-feeling" story.

that's why i was especially stroken by the Stom and the Rembandt. But the Rembrandt painting really succeed to transmit this "victimness", opposite to the Stom wich is too based on the faces and less on the global composition. That's why i think that the Rembrandt one is really masterful. You don't need to read the faces properly to feel this strange feeling, this impression that's something wrong is happening. It's all based on the lights and the composition.

i disagree with erik, you don't have to clearly see samson, he's just a victim in this story, he doesn't have to be strenghtful and heroic-looking. To me it's much more effective to paint Samson like Rembrandt did, and to focus on what's happenng between Delilah and the Philistines.

the others paintings are really impressives too, but failed in a "narrative" way.

maybe i'm not qualified enough to judge theses masters work, but it's just the way i feeled about this particular story.

( i apologize for my english mistakes or approximations, it's pretty difficult to speak about a such precise subject :) )

Steve said...

I chose Stom for its contained energy. Most of the others (Rembrandt excepted) seemed over the top with histrionics.

poggy said...

I picked Stom because it's the one with the best storytelling in my opinion, with Rubens as a close second, because it presents many elements without creating confusion, and I appreciate the overall sensuality.

My least favorite is Solomon - while I can appreciate that it's so dynamic, it looks too much like a stage play to me (and Delilah made me think at once of a silent film diva).

Patrick Dizon said...

Solomon J. Solomon's picture has always impressed me. I just love the energy and movement of the picture. Oh, and Delilah is so cruel in that one!

Saskia said...

I like the Stom and the Rembrandt. I like how I get a feeling of secrecy, urgency and anxiousness from the Rembrandt, the reasons I like the Stom are the ones already mentioned. Those two fit the story quite well.
From the more action-filled versions I like the Solomon best. The composition just works for me, Samson being captured like a wild animal - and the teasing Delilah is delightful. I like it when she gets a more active part in the renderings. In the second Van Dyck she looks so apologetical, that's also interesting.

donna said...

I like the two Van Dyck's for the contrast of the quiet and the action.

But I gotta go with the Rubens because I just love Reubens and it's so sensual.

Anonymous said...

Solomon's is just gut wrenching! She just looks so malicious flaunting that hair at him. and the look on his face is so full of the failure and realization of all that she proved herself to be, and all that he lost for falling for her. but everyone meets their fate shortly there after...
look at those sheers in the lower left corner! they are brutal looking all together. and that guy next to them probably got a butt whoopin while trying to use them.
serious painting there.

Anonymous said...

I really like Stom's, due to its style and feeling of immediateness. It's very "real". In fact, I'm putting it as my desktop background right now!

My second favourite is Solomon's, for reasons Joe Sutphin put more eloquently than I can.

I don't really know the story, though, so my preference is based solely on the picture, and not on any attachment to what's going on.

Victor said...

Solomon Solomon is amazing. I've wanted to see that painting in person since the moment I first laid eyes upon it. It's amazing the way the figures are so realistic, yet their contours are so rhythmic and dynamic.

Andy Mac said...

Rembrandt for me! I agree with badbot, Samson is the victim in the story- why should he stand out? Its a lot more subtle and evocative, drawing you in, and seems a lot less self connscious than the others.

Unknown said...

Great post! A few of them seem to just be using the story to show their skills at painting a muscle-y guy. (I like the second Van Dyck less than the first because of this.) Even so, I picked the Rubens, it just seems to have a pathos in the intensity of the way that figure is portrayed. He does the muscle-y guy with feeling.

innisart said...

I like the Solomon piece the best- between the energy and the depiction of Samson straining against his oppressors, and Delilah's expression, I feel it potrays the betrayal best, which is the heart of the tale for me.

jeff said...

I love the second Van Dyke and the Rembrandt is great. There is another more intense Rembrandt in which Samson is having his eyes taken out, that is one amazing painting.

1: the second Van Dyke
2: Rembrandt
3: Rubens

Ask me on another day and the order will be reversed.

Ramon said...

It's the Solomon for me, the composition is amazing, I think the naturalism of the figures makes the picture more alive for me. And as others have said, the fact that he has Delilah mocking Samson is just fantastic, it really drives home the fact that she betrayed him with no regard for his well being. Amazing painting all round, we're amazingly lucky to have a book by Solomon making the rounds on the web :)

Unknown said...

I vote for Stom. Some of the others seem overly dramatic to me. Stom's captures the deception, the quiteness and secrecy of the act.

Mauricio said...

Rembrandt has another painting on the same subject, far more famous and better than the one shown here. It can be seen on the link

Steven K said...

It came down between Stom and Solomon for me. Stom is indeed the most psychological, and exhibits spectacular use of lighting and staging to this end. His characterization of Delilah is the most intense, sympathetic, and ambivalent; urged on by the other two, she is tenderly and delicately cutting her husbands hair.

Solomon, on the other hand, is the most theatrical, visceral, emotional, and ultimately, human. His triumphant Delilah has no doubts about her actions at the moment, gleefully taunting Samson with a lock of hair she probably ripped from his head with her own hand. Samson's look of shock and betrayal completes the story of one of the Bible's most toxic relationships and dysfunctional marriages.

I was surprised at how ineffectual Rembrandt, Rubens (a personal favorite) and Van Dyck left me. I think it was primarily the characterization of Delilah - very "stock" Renaissance, with little fire or personality. Stom and Solomon had much stronger characterizations. Stom's is spiritual and ambivalent. Solomon's is vividly Shakespearean.

If you want to do this again, Jim, I'd suggest with the biblical story of Judith - and don't forget Artemisia Gentileschi's depiction.

colin said...

Matthias Stom, definitely. Those look like real people, doing a real nasty deed.

Solomon would be my second choice, because of the composition and the character shown by the gleeful Delilah (even though, as another commenter says, she looks a bit like a silent film diva).

Chris Jouan said...

Stom is my favorite because the viewer is involved in the imagery. We become another witness/accomplice.It almost gives me the feeling of having to be silent. Like one feels when walking in to a sacred place.

Daroo said...

Another great post.

I am attracted to the Solomon for its formal qualities: The draftsmanship, the staging, The swirling lines of action, the force and tension. This guy was the Frazetta or Jack Kirby of his day. His bombastic spectacular quality must have had an influence on early silent film directors. But it is the acting of Delilah that takes it too far for me (as has been noted she appears to be like an actor in a silent film -- Theda Bara perhaps? -- silent film acting was often just stage acting transplanted to film and she's playing to the back row. ) You could argue that her over the top performance represents Sampson's subjective point of view or possibly its in keeping with the spirit of Judges author's opinion of women (Sampson gave his first wife to his best man after she told the answer to his riddle to the Philistines, thus betraying him, then he went to a prostitute , then he fell in love with Delilah-- I'm not sure if its clear if they were married ...) She is basically rubbing her hands together and cackling with glee about how evil she is.

While I also like the moment portrayed by Rembrandt, I ultimately voted for the Stom his acting seemed more real -- Delilah has an anticipatory smile on her face because she is starting to feel that she can take power over Sampson -- its the moment just before the act and to my mind ultimately more resonant because of that.

I wonder though, what our choices would be if we were all walking through the "Sampson gallery" of some uber museum and viewing these works in person instead of on a computer monitor?

Tom said...

I like the orange and blues in the Van Dyke but if I pick a favorite it would be the Rubens because I have seen the actual painting in London's national gallery. Rubens painting was commisoned for a space above a fire place so the dark scheme with small areas of light would have look quite dramatic in a dark room light by a roaring fire.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but Rembrandt is painfully and awkwardly out of his element in grand manner historical painting if one is to judge him by the conventions of the style's history. I love the Solomon.

Stephen James. said...

You totally see Ruben's influence in the Van Dyck versions you showed here.

jeff said...

very "stock" Renaissance...
Man oh man I bet any painter here would love to have the chops to paint one of those. I have to disagree with statements like this, the very essence of post-modernism at it's worse.

It's interesting how most people pick the most cinematic, the Solomon.