Samson by Solomon Joseph Solomon

Solomon Joseph Solomon

Samson, 1886–87, Oil on canvas, 244 x 366 cm, Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, 3131, Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool / Bridgeman Images

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Individual Commentary
Commentary by
David Jasper

This work is by Solomon Joseph Solomon, an artist with a Jewish background. He gives great attention here to the looks exchanged between Delilah and Samson: vixenish delight on the one and anguished defeat on the other. At the same time, he gives limited attention to the narrative as portrayed in Judges 16.

In a scene of utter chaos betokening struggle, Samson is being bound with ropes (16:12), but not by Delilah as described in the biblical text. A body lies on the floor; a table is overturned; the shears that have shaved Samson lie discarded in the lower left of the painting. In representing the moment when the Philistines seize Samson (16:21—‘And the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes’), the artist highlights Delilah’s betrayal as she is shown taunting him with his shaven hair in her hand, held out in a mocking gesture. She is bare breasted, but less voluptuous than in many other portrayals (the seventeenth-century Delilahs of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, for example).

The painting reflects the style of the Parisian Salon in its scale, its violent intensity, and its voyeuristic depiction of nudity. Solomon develops the violent implications of the more sparse biblical narrative, portraying Samson as a powerful figure held by four men with a further two recumbent figures as victims of the struggle. In the left background, a group of armed soldiers have begun pouring into the room, perhaps from the ‘inner chamber’, where Judges 16:12 tells us they were lying in wait.

Who then are the naked figures here binding Samson? They seem to have no biblical origins, but the chaos of this dramatic episode gives an opportunity for the artist to demonstrate his skills in painting the human body. Indeed, the story of Samson and Delilah was popular with artists in part because it provided just such (acceptable) occasions to paint nakedness, and this work was admired in particular for its dynamic male nudes (Valentine 1999: 158).

The gloating Delilah is also entirely unbiblical. The text—insofar as it tells us anything about her attitude—suggests that she pursued her ends with cold deliberation.

 

References

Bernard, Bruce. 1988. The Bible and Its Painters (London: Macdonald)

Solomon, Solomon Joseph. 2012. The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing [1914] (New York: Dover Publications)

Valentine, Helen. 1999. Art in the Age of Queen Victoria (New Haven: Yale University Press)