Flesh. It gleams and swells in Samson and Delilah, giving us the whole story before we can recall the details. It shows us her allure and his weakness. It gives life to this picture, but it is made from paint brushed across a wooden panel. In Rubens’ hands, paint and flesh transform a morality tale into an erotic tour de force.
Delilah is luminous. The light on her pale skin draws our eyes immediately and casts her in silhouette against the darkness. Few shadows give form to her naked upper torso. The strongest are those that sculpt her shoulder and model her breasts. All the most important action in the painting starts with her breasts and ends at her left hand, which rests lightly upon the hero’s naked back. Her treacherous touch is at the perfect center of this square panel. Samson’s arm, a golden twisting column of muscle, directs us upward toward that point, where his gigantic strength is evident in the solid plane of his shoulder blades. There, the contrast between her delicacy and his mass is made even clearer by the difference in their skin coloring. It is the only point at which their flesh touches. We do not see them fully nude, but mostly clothed; not naked together but separated by the torrential folds of her scarlet gown. Rubens reduces the lovers’ intimacy of skin on skin to this small gesture, which embodies her victory.
Samson was a Judge of the Israelites for twenty years. But the Book of Judges does not describe him as wise, just, or virtuous—qualities we might expect in a leader. The stories tell of his strength, his rage, and his lust. From the womb, he is consecrated as a Nazirite, one who takes an oath to God. Thus, his virtue is understood, defined by the terms of the oath, one of which requires that he leave his hair uncut. It is not simply implicit in his being, but embodied—the perfect theme for a painter like Rubens. Lust is not the sin, but the weakness that leads him to sin: unable to resist Delilah, he tells her the secret of his strength, betraying his body and his God simultaneously. The hero’s legendary physical strength does not come from within, but is a divine gift. Weakness, both physical and moral, is the human state; strength comes from God: that’s the moral of the story. Rubens depicts that point brilliantly in Samson’s massive musculature, now slack with sexual exhaustion, no longer animated by the divine spirit. God leaves Samson at the instant his hair is cut. The hero’s weakness is evoked by Rubens in the dainty hands of the barber, which come between the lovers and are as twisted as their love.
Rubens created flesh masterfully, so that it seems supple or firm, ruddy or pale, wrinkled or smooth, as he needed. Where it is illuminated, it has substance, in contrast to the translucent browns that make the shadows. The flesh in light would have been the third and final layer of paint, applied most slowly, blended with soft brushes, to build up the illusion of sculptural form. In those passages, and in the illuminated drapery, the artist would have used lead white paint mixed with other colors. Lead gives paint opacity, density and a thick creamy physical character. It is still favored by artists who paint the figure. There is none in the shadows: that is the second layer, painted only with translucent umber pigments; it is simple and lightly worked. Look at Delilah’s right hand, where the shadow is surprisingly flat in contrast to the carefully applied light tones. Samson’s upper back, a plane seemingly as solid as a table top, dissolves into liquid shadow. His arm is a stunning example of this method. In this second layer, most of the initial drawing would have been laid in with a small pointed brush, and then the flat areas of shadow filled in. You can see some initial lines not quite covered up by the light paint on Samson’s back. Rubens changed his mind, and with the passage of time, the top layer has become more transparent, letting us see his process. He also drew by scratching into the film of wet oil paint: look at Delilah’s pots of perfume in the niche on the back wall, left of the door. There, using the handle of a brush with brisk confidence, Rubens outlines the shapes. The brown shadowy layer was put down over a dry layer of yellow ochre, which gives the panel its golden glow. All three layers (ochre, then umber, then opaque lights) are beautifully managed in Delilah’s hair. Passages like that inspire in ordinary painters both awe and despair.
We know we are seeing the hand, and mind, of Rubens himself in this painting. It is an oil sketch, made for presentation to the patron who commissioned the work. Once approved, it became the model followed by the artist’s studio assistants, when they enlarged the image on to a major canvas, two meters wide. That larger version is in the National Gallery, London, but it hung first in the house of Nicolaas Rockox, a powerful merchant in Antwerp, and a friend of the artist. (Apparently, Rockox did not worry that his visitors’ tastes might be more prudish than his own.) Polished and public, the big picture includes the brushwork of the master and his assistants. To modern taste, which puts such emphasis on individualism, such workshop paintings seem less authentic than the autograph work we see in a panel like the Cincinnati sketch. I don’t object to collaborative version, though. How could I? It is magnificent. The master didn’t hire mediocre help, and his business practice followed the standards of the era, except that it was better than that of all his competitors. Nevertheless, there is magic in the small panels that Rubens made himself. They are a record of his spontaneous decisions and his unerring touch. He made hundreds of oil sketches. They are consistently brilliant, and have always been treasured. This is one of my favorites, so I am glad to be able to visit it easily.
Sheldon Tapley is a painter. He is the Stodghill Professor of Art at Centre College. Visit his work at www.sheldontapley.com.