after Rubens: the strange story of the Samson and Delilah
 
 
Frequently Asked Questions

Who is responsible for afterRubens?
What are you hoping to achieve with this website?
Jacob Matham was an accomplished artist in his own right. How do you know he didn’t make some changes when he made his engraving of Rubens’s ‘Samson and Delilah’?
How do you know that Frans Francken didn’t use Matham’s engraving to fill in the detail of the ‘Samson and Delilah’ in his c. 1630 painting of Rockox’s main room?
What about the oil sketch for the ‘Samson and Delilah’ now in Cincinatti – it shows Samson’s foot incomplete just like in the National Gallery painting, doesn’t it?
Is afterRubens comparing the ‘Samson and Delilah’ with the right paintings? Are there other works by Rubens which match it more closely in style?
The ‘Samson and Delilah’ is admittedly idiosyncratic, but perhaps Rubens was experimenting with a new style? Or couldn’t he just have been having an off-day?
Is it not true that many paintings were actually the work of Rubens’ large studio and were hardly touched by the Master himself, and does this not account for differences in quality between paintings in his oeuvre?
The National Gallery must have researched this painting meticulously before purchasing it. It’s hard to believe that they could get it as wrong as afterRubens is suggesting – is there evidence in support of the attribution which you are not telling us?
Have any scientific tests been carried out to establish the age of the painting?
What is the monetary value of the 'Samson and Delilah'?
What has the National Gallery’s response been to afterRubens?
What is all this business about the back of the painting?
Has there been a public debate on this subject?
Why has the ‘Samson and Delilah’ been designated a “highlight painting” of the National Gallery’s Collection?
afterRubens.org seems to be drawing responses from all over the world – why do you think people outside the UK are even interested in this subject?


Who is responsible for afterRubens?

afterRubens has been created by a group of people who are united by their belief that the ‘Samson and Delilah’ in the National Gallery is not by Rubens.

Although they did not create the site and do not run it, the bulk of the research presented here is based upon the work of the painter and award-winning art-historian Euphrosyne Doxiadis, and two fellow painters Steve Harvey and Sian Hopkinson. We are also indebted to the work of a great many other academics, artists and journalists, most of whom have published work listed in the Articles section of the website.

While we have a firm opinion on the painting’s authorship, we invite open debate and will publish comments or submissions by any party with a contribution to make. We have no professional or commercial interests in this matter, and we have great respect for the National Gallery, recognising it to be one of the finest art institutions in the world.

It is our conviction, however, that by not acknowledging that doubts about the ‘Samson and Delilah’ are serious and that a meticulous and transparent review of the available evidence is required, the Gallery is doing a disservice to itself, to the British public and art-lovers around the world, and to the reputation of Rubens.


What are you hoping to achieve with this website?

We want to bring all available information about the ‘Samson and Delilah’ into the public domain, and to invite an inclusive and transparent debate about this painting – a debate which is long overdue and which we think the supporters of the attribution have a clear responsibility to engage in.

If, on review of the evidence, there is still serious doubt about the attribution to Rubens we think it is only right that this doubt be reflected in the label and literature accompanying the painting.


Jacob Matham was an accomplished artist in his own right. How do you know he didn’t make some changes when he made his engraving of Rubens’s ‘Samson and Delilah’?

Yes, Matham could have made minor changes to suit the medium he was working in, but for the following reasons we don’t believe he would have made major changes in composition such as filling in Samson’s missing toes or removing two soldiers from the doorway.

a) Matham made his engraving only a few years after the ‘Samson and Delilah’ was completed. At that time Rubens was one of the most well-known and respected painters of his age, and it seems incredible that the engraver would have presumed to ‘improve upon’ his composition so dramatically.

b) In Matham’s dedication to the painting’s owner, Nicolaas Rockox, he stresses the care and attention he has taken in producing his engraving. Why would he have committed this sentiment to writing if he had made two major changes to the original composition?

c) Rubens had expressed his trust in Matham, and the engraver explicitly mentions “the Master Peter Paul Rubens” by name in the dedication.

d) In an age before photography and mass reproduction, engravings were the best way to disseminate celebrated artworks to a wider audience – given this function one would expect the main points of composition to be faithfully reproduced by the engraver.


How do you know that Frans Francken didn’t use Matham’s engraving to fill in the detail of the ‘Samson and Delilah’ in his c. 1630 painting of Rockox’s main room?

This is unlikely for the following reasons:

a) Matham engraving is in black and white, while Frans Francken’s copy of the ‘Samson and Delilah’ in his ‘Supper at the House of Burgomaster Rockox’ is in colour, so the engraving cannot have been his sole source.

b) Francken was working for Rockox and has depicted the rest of the room, so he must have had access to it. We know that Rubens’ 'Samson and Delilah' hung in that room until 1640, so Francken would have seen the original painting. Under these circumstances why would he rely on a 15-year-old engraving for major points of composition?

c) Rubens and Rockox were still alive when Francken made his painting and by that time Rubens was the most celebrated painter of his age. Why would Francken choose to copy Matham instead of following Rubens himself?


What about the oil sketch for the ‘Samson and Delilah’ now in Cincinnati – it shows Samson’s foot incomplete just like in the National Gallery painting, doesn’t it?

The story of the oil sketch (or ‘modello’) for the ‘Samson and Delilah’ is fascinating in its own right. It was found in “an antique shop in York” in the 1930s, at which time it showed Samson’s foot complete. The foot is also shown complete in the image of the oil sketch in auction-house Christies’ sale catalogue of 1966. However, by the time it was purchased in 1972 by the Art Museum in Cincinnati where it can be seen today, two sections – “strips of wood totaling about 8.25 centimeters wide (evidently not original)” – had been removed from either side, shearing Samson’s foot in the process and creating a better match with the National Gallery painting.


Is afterRubens comparing the ‘Samson and Delilah’ with the right paintings? Are there other works by Rubens which match it more closely in style?

We looked closely at works from Rubens’ entire oeuvre but were unable to find anything to help explain the painterly anomalies evident in the ‘Samson and Delilah’.

In choosing comparisons for afterRubens we limited ourselves to paintings by Rubens from the immediate years around 1609-10 when he painted his original ‘Samson and Delilah’.

We were also guided by the National Gallery’s own statements concerning the painting's stylistic counterparts. In a 1997 press release, then Director Neil MacGregor named ‘ The Raising of the Cross’ in Antwerp and the ‘ Susanna and the Elders’ in Madrid as matching the ‘Samson and Delilah’ in terms of 'figure drawing, colour, composition and paint handling' . Our comparisons with these paintings (see Flash Movie or Comparisons Tool) demonstrate how dramatically they in fact differ. The last painting cited by MacGregor – the ‘Cimon and Pero’ in St. Petersburg – is no less ill-matching, as we have demonstrated in a new set of comparisons.

Finally, the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ (which at the time of the 1997 press release had not yet been recognized as a Rubens) is also often said to belong to the same stylistic family as the ‘Samson and Delilah’. Again, close comparisons between the two (see Flash Movie or Comparisons Tool) leave us wondering on what grounds such statements were made.


The ‘Samson and Delilah’ is no doubt unusual, but perhaps Rubens was just experimenting with a new style? Or couldn’t he just have been having an off-day?

Such explanations are tempting (and, we believe, more sensible than the increasingly unfashionable idea that the painting is a classic Rubens masterpiece), but we reject them for the following reasons:

a) The ‘Samson and Delilah’ was an extremely important painting for Rubens. It was commissioned by Nicholas Rockox, who had been Burgomaster of Antwerp several times and was one of the most influential and cultured men in the city. He had actively promoted Rubens’ career after his return from Italy, and had helped him secure his first major commission. Rubens famously referred to him as his ‘friend and patron’ and he was god-father to the artist’s nephew. The ‘Samson and Delilah’ was to be centerpiece of Rockox’s main room, and Rubens would surely have created a tour-de-force to leave his guests – the most influential men in Antwerp – in no doubt as to the extraordinary talents of the artist back in their midst.

b) The painterly deficiencies which characterize the ‘Samson and Delilah’ relate particularly to the brushstrokes and the way the paint has been applied to the panel – even if Rubens has been experimenting with a new style, we believe he would not fundamentally alter the quality of his painterly ‘signature’ in this way. If it was an experiment, he must have considered it a failure, as these ‘innovations’ were never repeated.

c) From his extensive surviving correspondence we know that Rubens tried to abstain from painting on his ‘off-days’, postponing work for a more propitious moment when he could continue 'with love' – con amore – as he was in the habit of saying. In a much later letter sent to George Geldorp from Antwerp on April 2, 1638 he memorably writes of a commission “ … I should not like to be pressed to finish it, but ask that this be left to my discretion and convenience, in order to do it with pleasure.”


Is it not true that many paintings were actually the work of Rubens’ large studio and were hardly touched by the Master himself, and does this not account for differences in quality between paintings in his oeuvre?

It is true that Rubens came to operate something of a production-line but this began in earnest well after 1609-10 when he painted his original ‘Samson and Delilah’. In any case, it is hardly likely that he would have entrusted this all-important commission (as discussed above) to his assistants. Furthermore, this painting differs almost as much from acknowledged ‘studio-paintings’ as it does from undisputed works by Rubens’ hand.


The National Gallery must have researched this painting meticulously before purchasing it. It’s hard to believe that they could get it as wrong as afterRubens is suggesting – is there evidence in support of the attribution which you are not telling us?

We are not aware of any serious evidence linking this painting to the hand of Rubens – if any exists we would be delighted to hear about it and will publish it here immediately.

It is important to remember that this would not be the first time that a major art institution had unwittingly bought a copy or fake in good faith. We believe that the painting’s more recent history helps to explain why problems which seem obvious today were overlooked at the time of its purchase in 1980.

The ‘Samson and Delilah’ today in the National Gallery was certified as the long-lost original by the Rubens expert Ludwig Burchard in 1930 (a year after it was discovered) and over the next fifty years it remained privately owned and was therefore not available for detailed study.

Although Burchard had no documentary evidence to back up his certification and we now know that he had made incorrect attributions on other occasions, he has always been a highly respected figure in the art world and his opinion still carries great weight.

When the painting was lent by its owners to a 1977 exhibition in Antwerp, the rare opportunity to see the painting – which nobody at the time had doubted was Rubens’ 1609 masterpiece – understandably generated great excitement. When it then came up for sale three years later in 1980, some of the more obvious inconsistencies seem not to have registered against the background of the unquestioned status quo established since 1930.

It was only after the painting went on display in the National Gallery in London and the Gallery completed its Technical Bulletin, that a wider group of scholars and art-lovers had the opportunity to examine and investigate the work for themselves. Over the next years a great deal of new research by various people brought to light information that was simply not known in 1980.

In their defence of the painting, the National Gallery has repeatedly referred to a group of Rubens experts who support the attribution, but many of the substantive questions more recently raised about its style and history remain unanswered.

While we have never doubted that the painting was bought in good faith, we believe that the evidence available today weighs so strongly against the attribution that the National Gallery now has a responsibility to conduct an inclusive and impartial review.


Have any scientific tests been carried out to establish the age of the painting?

A tree-ring dating (dendrochronology) test was carried out at the National Gallery’s request by Dr. Peter Klein of the University of Hamburg. He reported that the tree which provided the wood for the panel on which the National Gallery’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ is painted was felled around 1600. Unfortunately this tells us nothing about who actually painted it, and we know that Rubens was widely copied by his students and contemporaries.

Furthermore, serious doubts have been raised about the validity of the test itself, and the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory, an independent tree-ring dating lab, has even called this case an “example of dendrochronology being misrepresented in the public arena.


What is the monetary value of the Samson and Delilah?

The National Gallery paid more than £ 2.5 million pounds for the ‘Samson and Delilah’ in 1980, which was then the 2nd highest sum ever paid for a painting. There have been meteoric rises in the prices paid for paintings in the intervening years, and in 2002 more than 45 million pounds was paid for Rubens’ ‘Massacre of the Innocents’, which is currently on loan to the National Gallery and hangs opposite the ‘Samson and Delilah’. There is no way of estimating the painting’s current market value, but if it was possible to put to rest the questions over its authenticity it would presumably have a value comparable to the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’.


What has the National Gallery’s response been to afterRubens?

To date, the National Gallery has made no official comment on afterRubens or any of the new information presented here. We invite their reaction to the points raised and will publish any response immediately.


What is all this business about the back of the painting?

When Ludwig Burchard certified the ‘Samson and Delilah’ in 1930 he wrote that it was on its ‘original oak panel’. Since then, the panel has been cut down to a thickness of around 3mm and is mounted onto modern block-board. It is not known when, why or by whom the panel was cut down. For a more detailed discussion please refer to the relevant articles on this issue.


Has there been a public debate on this subject?

As far as we are aware, an inclusive and transparent assessment of all the available evidence on the ‘Samson and Delilah’ has never taken place. In October 1997 the National Gallery issued 2 press releases; the following paragraph appeared in one but was omitted from the other:

"Debates of this sort require patient consideration of different sorts of evidence. The best format is for this evidence to be presented at some length for public discussion - and the National Gallery will be arranging such a lecture and debate over the next few months."

afterRubens was created to host the debate that never was. However, such a debate can only be truly meaningful with the participation of the National Gallery.


Why has the ‘Samson and Delilah’ been designated a 'highlight painting' of the National Gallery’s Collection?

We too would be interested to know the rationale behind this selection, since there are tens of undisputed Rubens masterpieces which could have been chosen instead of this controversial painting.

As long as it is a 'highlight painting', however, we believe that there is particularly pressing need for an inclusive and open debate on its attribution.


afterRubens.org seems to be drawing responses from all over the world – why do you think people outside the UK are even interested in this subject?

We believe that this subject has resonance with a wide audience because it is about a great painter, Peter Paul Rubens, and because the medium of the web allows people to look closely at the painting for themselves, and engage with the stylistic and historical issues at hand instead of just accepting the received wisdom. This is particularly compelling in the case of ‘Samson and Delilah’, where common sense and expert opinion appear to be at odds on so many points.



Last updated: 15 December, 2005

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