Samson and Delilah by Rubens? An art appraisal adventure

A friend on Facebook asked for comments about this painting of the story of Samson and Delilah, which is said to be by Rubens.

Here are my comments before and after I looked up references on the Web.

Comments on Facebook Made Before Research

It is probably an early Rubens for in it is preserved the exactitude of earlier Flemish Painting. The highlighting “too” precise, the paint laid on with smaller brushes, the oils used stiffer and more resinuous. My guess is that here Rubens painted a grisaille underpainting to model lights and shades. Looks backward to Van Eyck and not forward to Van Dyck.

May be a forgery since Rubens not known to have started with an old Flemish style. Doesn’t have the feel of a true Rubens such as his celebrations now in the Louvre of Marie de Medici’s useless life (as PJ O’Rourke, the American conservative humorist, called it).


“Rubenesque” nymphs celebrate Marie de Medici’s Useless Life: note looser and more “painterly” style, obvious indication of a brownish ground as opposed to a gesso ground, more fat less muscle, etc.

Samson and Deliliah is not Rubenesque save in the treatment of Samson’s arm. The back fails completely. It doesn’t show Rubens’ knowledge of anatomy: there is a mysterious bulge instead of a shoulder blade and the back ripples pointlessly down to this clown’s useless ass.

But, the barber and the serving maid are more Rubenesque in the sense of genre which however was widely popular in Flemish and northern painting from the late Middle ages and in the Low Countries and Spain in the 17th century. Rubens like Veronese sometimes used a proto-genre style to paint “low” characters.

Do not bid high on this painting.

Comments on Facebook Made After Research

Aha, after writing the above, I found that there is indeed some doubt about this being a Rubens: it might be a Honthorst!

See http://www.afterrubens.org/home.asp. I had NOT known of this link when I wrote the above.

You see, after the turn of the 17th century, “northern” painting consists in art history of two schools: Dutch and Flemish. But the Flanders school disappeared later in the 17th century because “Flanders” was incorporated into France. It later (much later) was disgorged and became Belgium as of 1830.

Whereas there was not a lot of “Dutch” painting proper prior to 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia which ended BOTH the Thirty and the Eighty years’s war, the latter being the Dutch war for independence.

Many ordinary and run of the mill Dutch painters preserved the precision of Jan van Eyck of the 15th century whereas the “southern northern” school of northern art was more influenced as was Rubens by the looser techniques of the Venetians of the early 16th century.

Van Eyck started with a white gesso ground and did a precise grisaille (black and white) underpainting in oil and or tempera and used perhaps one or two glazes of brilliant and translucent oil paint. Whereas the Venetians started with a brownish prepared canvas and then used what Titian called “svelatura, trente o quarante” (glazes, thirty or forty) to intensify, deepen and highlight the dramatic effect.

The Eighty Years war and Dutch voyages of exploration, and early capitalism, caused the Dutch bourgeois to rise and by the late 17th century they constituted the primary market for art as opposed to the aristocrats further south. The Dutch bourgeois (rather like modern Chinese collectors) wanted “value for their money” in brilliant trompe l’oeil effects reminiscent of van Eyck.

Whereas aristocrats were somewhat more appreciative of the entrepreneur artist who wanted his painting to be seen simultaneously as an image and a painting with his own signature, inimitable (and higher priced) style. For the Venetians of the late 16th and early 17th century this was the proto-painterly, looser style of Tiziano Vecelli (Titian), Veronese and Tintoret (Tintoretto) which looks forward to Spanish painting of the 17th century, Goya and the Impressionists.

For private French collectors of the 17th century this was the obscurity and complexity of Poussin’s iconography.

Rubens, we know, followed as did van Dyck the “southern” and Venetian style (southern only relative to Holland). This was of necessity since during their lifetimes, primarily in the first half of the 17th century, Holland while prospering hadn’t evolved a full market in art: van Dyck in fact threw his fortune in with the Stuarts in Great Britain and is well known for his paintings of Charles I and his useless relations.

Bourgeois ignorant about art but who want to invest their swag prefer polish and finish because they are tone deaf to Higher Things: I note that the newly rich of China seem, in Hong Kong galleries, to want even in the case of abstraction the appearance of elegance and labour: even the sides and sometimes the rear of paintings are finished.

Which is why the “northern, van Eyck” style made me suspicious that this was a Rubens and my suspicions are confirmed since there are doubts about the provenance.

The art market today, like most other monkeyshines of the super goddamn rich, takes money away from starving children of Somalia and wastes it on fraud, and this may be an example (a friend recently said wait a minute, if we can relieve their famines with massive aid, how come we cannot feed them and give them land and seed BEFORE the famine, a simple question that needs to be asked).

Fraud gets easier and easier as more and more collectors are more and more ignorant of art technique and the political history of Europe. It creates careers for fraudsters, forgerers and other riff raff (whom an intelligent art appraiser friend calls “the art swine”) and opportunities for honest consultants who can see that the emperor has no clothes.

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8 Responses to “Samson and Delilah by Rubens? An art appraisal adventure”

  1. spinoza1111 Says:

    Another indication of provenance: Delilah is modestly dressed: Calvinist/Arminian Protestant bourgeois collectors in the United Provinces of the Netherlands insisted as do many bourgeois collectors today on this (complementary of course to the usual hard core of lechers which are present in all social classes). Whereas in Renaissance Catholicism the Roman tradition of nudity as a dominance signal was revived and any objections to the use of nudity were met by aristocratic protection: the artist in Vienna and Antwerp could refer objections to his patron, whereas in Amsterdam the local burghers might object … unless the nudity was specifically sanctioned (as Rembrandt’s nudes are) by Biblical texts.

  2. spinoza1111 Says:

    Bathsheba received King David’s letter in the tub. Adam and Eve knew not clothes. Whereas Deliliah, albeit a seductress, is not referred to as naked if memory serves.

  3. William Byron Webster Says:

    Dear Ed,

    Your comments on the paintings attributed to Rubens is astonishing as are you. I never cease to be dazzled by your pansophist brilliance. There is something tragic in your life, like a starburst in a distant galaxy whose light we mere mortals espy lightyears later. You were meant for so much more. But I bask in the radiance that you blaze into the dark vastness of a largely uncomprehending black hole of a cosmos.

    Best wishes,

    William

  4. spinoza1111 Says:

    All I care about at this point, William, is that the children see it. They need reassurance having largely the same genetic inheritance that what was said on a medallion I received in Palo Alto in 1984 is true: to thine own self be true.

  5. spinoza1111 Says:

    I need to go read Nathan der Weise by Lessing or something like that. No wonder my wife was weary.

  6. Rubens are my favorite. I remember them at the Louvre, Paris. The colors and style are beautiful they keep moving with emotion
    and passion. LOVE IT!

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