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Samson and Delilah

The Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) depicts a moment of high tension from the story of Samson and Delilah, as told in the Old Testament of the Bible (Book of Judges 16:4-21). Samson has fallen asleep in the lap of his lover Delilah. Samson’s sworn enemies, the Philistines, bribed Delilah with 1,100 pieces of silver to tell them the secret of his superhuman strength so they might at last defeat him. Having asked Samson repeatedly what the source of his power was, Delilah finally discovered that if his hair should be cut then his strength would leave him. She informed the Philistines, shown here hiding behind the column to the left of the painting ready to capture Samson as soon as his hair is cut. Van Dyck’s Delilah is the ringleader of the action, raising a silencing finger to her lips while gently exposing Samson’s locks of hair with her other hand. She gathers back the brocade and clears the way for the servant and his shears. 

This work is one of Van Dyck’s earliest masterpieces. He painted it around the age of twenty, when he was working as a studio assistant to Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) in Antwerp. It is most likely a response to Rubens’ own version of the subject painted about ten years earlier, today in the National Gallery, London. When reinventing Rubens’ works, Van Dyck often reversed the composition, as is the case here, and added his own interpretation. In his version of Samson and Delilah’s story, Rubens chose to show the cutting of the first locks of hair, whereas Van Dyck concentrates on the preceding moment so as to heighten the tension. The subject matter of Samson and Delilah provided a beneficial opportunity for the young Van Dyck to display his considerable painterly skills – from the depiction of the dynamic human form, to the rendering of fur, rustling satin, sumptuous brocade, and the jewels in Delilah’s hair. 

Currently on display

Sir Anthony van Dyck
c. 1618–20
Gallery 4
152.3 x 232 cm
Oil on canvas
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811
Accession number
Adopted by the Hambland Foundation, 1989