Drowning in Delilah

In contrast to Rubens’ quasi-mythological figure, Rembrandt’s Samson looks more 
like another self-portrait of the artist with his wife

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The gulf that separate’s Rembrandt’s “Samson” from the “Samson” of Rubens (a work I discussed in “A hero, unmuscled”; Feb. 14) is a mirror of the yawning gulf that separates the two artists and their different artistic, religious and human world views – indeed, it marks the difference between artist archetypes.

Rubens, a Catholic, a man of the world, a diplomat and a hedonist, apprehends his art like a film director in our time: as a multi-participant production. (Maybe van Dyck painted a few unimportant figures for him, Snyders did inanimate nature and animals, and Jordaens added a few touches, but he, Rubens, is the “director” of the scene.) It was with reluctance that he painted his own likeness – only when his portrait was commissioned by a king, or on the occasion of his marriage.

That man, who was drawn to power and celebration, is the opposite of Rembrandt: the Protestant who was expelled from the Church, never left Holland in his life and wandered little, and whose life project was to bring the world into his studio. Rembrandt, who never flirted with the option of being a court painter (he also refused such offers), rerouted art from its classic place in the service of power to its new place in the free market.

Indeed, according to some testimonies, he bought his own works in public auctions in order to preserve their market value. The insular Rembrandt painted about 80 self-portraits, and his proximity in time and place to Descartes makes it possible to articulate his perception of the world in the words, “I paint, therefore I am.” He is thus the opposite to Rubens, and his “Samson” is, accordingly, personal, almost confessional.

Here is Rembrandt’s “Samson Betrayed by Delilah” (1628), painted 20 years later than the Rubens. Two things astonish us at first glance: This Samson has no muscles, and he is drowning in Delilah, has disappeared within her. In contrast to Rubens’ quasi-mythological figure, Rembrandt’s Samson looks more like another self-portrait of the artist with his wife. Rembrandt felt a deep kinship with the character of Samson.

This is noted by Doron Lurie, the chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, in his book “Rembrandt: Myth Against Reality” (2006, Hebrew). Lurie points especially to Rembrandt’s identification with the tension between Samson and his father-in-law, the father of his first wife (her name is not mentioned in the Bible). He also alludes to Rembrandt’s attitude toward Samson as “one who is going blind.” Indeed, Rembrandt took a great interest in people who lost their sight, devoting more than 10 engravings to the blind Tobias.

However, when I recently stood opposite this painting in the Gemäldegalerie, in Berlin, what came to mind was a passage from David Grossman’s book about Samson, “Lion’s Honey,” in which he describes the biblical hero as an artist. Not only as one whose almost every sentence is poetry, but a performance artist. Grossman suggests that we think of the fastening of torches to the foxes’ tails as a metaphor for the duality that is burning in Samson’s mind, and of his carrying off the gates of Gaza as evoking the theme of the removal of the barrier between inner and outer in his life.

And above all, it seems to me, there is the scraping of the honey from the lion’s carcass. For what is the artistic act if not this: that we artists kill the lion that lives within us, and turn to the death in our innards and from it gather the sweet honey of art?

I want to draw the viewer’s attention to another element. Look at the two examples of painterly intelligence that Rembrandt wields here. The figures and the room are created almost entirely with bold brush strokes, virtuosic and rapid, whereas Samson’s belt is painted slowly, using a hair brush, with the skill of a miniaturist. In fact, the further the painting moves away from the sash around Samson’s waist, the less “painted” it becomes.

I believe this has to do with the subject we began with: that this is a Samson without muscles. Rembrandt is launching a discussion here about power. To him, obviously, power is not muscles. Samson is not even large. He is a kind of infant crawling back into the womb. (One recalls here Melanie Klein’s notion that we create art in order to heal the anxiety that accompanied our relations with the mother’s body in infancy.)

I would suggest, then, that the power in the painting by Rembrandt, is the power of the gaze, a painterly power. This is what Rembrandt is afraid to lose. Hence the intimate human strength of this painting.

The writer is a painter.

Samson Betrayed by Delilah, by Rembrandt van Rijn (1628). A kind of infant crawling back into the womb.



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