The subject of this picture is from the Biblical book of Judges. Samson, whose strength came from his hair, has been shorn by his duplicitous lover, Delilah, and is set upon by the Philistines, who bind him and blind him. The focus of this dramatic and marvelously staged composition—a landmark in the artist’s career—is the vigorously modeled back of Samson, struggling to free himself. It is one of several commissions from Cardinal Giacomo Serra, the papal legate to Ferrara. Serra was a notable collector in Rome and also promoted Rubens.
With massive, lifesize figures, Guercino’s painting illustrates one of the climactic events of the Old Testament story of Samson and Delilah—the moment when “the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes” (Judges 16:21). Samson had fallen in love with Delilah, whom the Philistines bribed with eleven hundred pieces of silver to discover the source of his superhuman strength. Guercino conjured up a scene of dramatic moment, filling the picture surface with figures describing an interlocking pattern of violent gestures. Adding to the drama, light falls across the composition, breaking it up into patches of light and dark, typical of Guercino’s early naturalistic chiaroscuro style before he worked in Rome. Years later, when Guercino returned to the subject in a compositional sketch (Philadelphia Museum of Art) for a painting of 1646, he chose the moment when Samson quietly points to his unruly mane, transforming the scene from one of narrative drama to moral exposition.
In an exhaustive essay on the painting, Denis Mahon (1981) identified it as one that the young Guercino painted for Cardinal Jacopo Serra (1570–1623), the legate, or papal governor, of the former duchy of Ferrara, which had passed to the papacy in 1598. In Rome Serra had been an admirer of Rubens, and in Ferrara he became an enthusiastic patron of Guercino, commissioning at least five large paintings by him. According to Guercino’s first biographer, Carlo Cesare Malvasia (1678), Serra summoned Guercino in 1619 to Ferrara, “where he painted many pictures,” which pleased Serra so much that he paid Guercino more than the agreed-upon prices. Malvasia specified the subjects of three of them: Saint Sebastian Succored (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna), The Return of the Prodigal Son (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), and the present painting. The following year Guercino was recalled to Ferrara to make further pictures for Serra and his nephew, Giovan Paolo Serra, including Elijah Fed by Ravens (National Gallery, London) and Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, on loan from Sir Denis Mahon). After those two works were completed, Serra knighted the painter, making him a cavalliero on December 8, 1620.
Roberto Longhi (1926) suggested that Guercino’s Raising of Lazarus (Musée du Louvre, Paris) was a pendant to the Wrightsman canvas, though Malvasia did not mention a painting of this subject. To judge from its style, the Lazarus certainly looks as if it was painted at the same time as Serra’s pictures. It is almost the same size as the Samson, and its composition, with seated figures in the foreground, is similar, but there is no obvious thematic connection between the two paintings. Three preparatory drawings for the Wrightsman canvas are known: two pen-and-ink sketches (Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence; Teylers Museum, Haarlem) in which the artist explores the composition and a red chalk study (Institut Néerlandais, Fondation Custodia, Fritz Lugt Collection, Paris) for Samson’s back.
[2011; adapted from Fahy 2005]
Jacopo Serra, Cardinal Legate of Ferrara (commissioned 1619–d. 1623); Serra family, Ferrara, ?later Naples (1623–?ca. 1920); Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Bey (Maria Teresa Serra) Sursock, Palais Sursock, Beirut (acquired in Naples; from after 1920); their daughter, Yvonne Lady Cochrane, Palais Sursock (by 1969–79; sold through Leggatt Brothers, London, to Wrightsman); Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, New York (1979–84)
Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna. "Nell'età di Correggio e dei Carracci: pittura in Emilia dei secoli XVI e XVII," September 10–November 10, 1986, no. 163.
Washington. National Gallery of Art. "The Age of Correggio and the Carracci: Emilian Painting of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," December 19, 1986–February 16, 1987, no. 163.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Correggio and the Carracci: Emilian Painting of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," March 26–May 24, 1987, no. 163.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions," October 24, 2008–February 1, 2009, online catalogue.
THIS WORK MAY NOT BE LENT, BY TERMS OF ITS ACQUISITION BY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.
Carlo Cesare Malvasia. Felsina pittrice: vite de' pittori bolognesi. Bologna, 1678, vol. 2, p. 364, lists three works executed by Guercino in 1619 for Cardinal Serra: a wounded Saint Sebastian being succored by various figures, a Samson with Delilah who cuts his hair, and a prodigal son received by his father; records that Serra proved so enthusiastic about Guercino's modeling that he paid more than the agreed upon price for the pictures and conferred a knighthood on the artist.
Marcello Oretti. notes on paintings seen in Naples. ca. 1777–78 [Biblioteca Comunale di Bologna, ms. B. 165²; this passage published in Ref. Mahon 1968, p. 83]
, lists in the "Casa del Conte della Cerra fuori della Porta allo Spirito Santo un quadro con Sansone in grembo a Dalida assalito dalli Filistei del Guercino figure al naturale" [At the home of Count della Cerra, outside the gate of Santo Spirito, a life-size painting by Guercino of Samson in the lap of Delilah, assailed by Philistines].
Roberto Longhi. "The Climax of Caravaggio's Influence on Guercino." Art in America 14 (June 1926), p. 140, identifies Guercino's "Raising of Lazarus" (Louvre, Paris) as the pendant to his "Samson Captured by the Philistines," known only from a copy in the Musée d'Angoulême
Denis Mahon. Il Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 1591–1666): catalogo critico dei disegni. Exh. cat., Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio. Bologna, 1968, p. 65, connects Guercino's sketch for "Samson Captured by the Philistines" (Teylers Museum, Haarlem) with his painting of the same subject known from a copy in the Musée d'Angoulême; agrees with Longhi (1926) that Guercino's "Raising of Lazarus" may have been conceived as a pendant to his "Samson".
Denis Mahon. Il Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 1591–1666): catalogo critico dei dipinti. Exh. cat., Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio. Bologna, 1968, p. 83, cites Oretti as evidence that a picture of this subject was in Naples in about 1777–78.
Andrea Emiliani inNuove acquisizioni per i musei dello stato, 1966–1971. Exh. cat., Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio. Bologna, 1971, p. 55.
A. Pigler. Barockthemen: Eine Auswahl von Verzeichnissen zur Ikonographie des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts. 2nd ed. [first ed. 1956]. Budapest, 1974, vol. 1, p. 128.
Denis Mahon. "Guercino and Cardinal Serra: A Newly Discovered Masterpiece." Apollo 114 (September 1981), pp. 170–75, colorpl. VII, figs. 2, 3 (details), discusses the rediscovery of this painting and its early provenance; sees the diverse and seemingly unrelated subject matter of the works Guercino made for Serra as evidence that the artist was at liberty with the latter to propose subjects that would serve as pretexts for the experiments in painting that interested both men; adds that Guercino may have enjoyed a similar freedom with Serra in decisions regarding the size and format of pictures made for him.
Amalia Mezzetti and Emanuele Mattaliano. Indice ragionato delle "Vite de' pittori e scultori ferraresi" di Gerolamo Baruffaldi. Vol. 2, Ferrara, 1981, p. 161.
John Russell. "1981: A Year for Artists' Centenaries." New York Times (January 1, 1981), p. 7.
Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée and Dominique Thiébaut. Catalogue sommaire illustré des peintures du musée du Louvre. Vol. 2, Italie, Espagne, Allemagne, Grande-Bretagne et divers. Paris, 1981, p. 187, call it the pendant to the Louvre "Raising of Lazarus".
Patrick Matthiesen inFrom Borso to Cesare d'Este: The School of Ferrara 1450–1628. Exh. cat., Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd. London, 1984, p. 111, under no. 65.
Keith Christiansen inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1984–1985. New York, 1985, pp. 21–22, ill. (color), grants that Guercino's "Raising of Lazarus" (Louvre, Paris) may conceivably be the pendant to the Wrightsman "Samson".
Denis Mahon inThe Age of Correggio and the Carracci: Emilian Painting of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Exh. cat.Washington, 1986, pp. 468–69, no.163, ill. (color).
Luigi Salerno. I dipinti del Guercino. Rome, 1988, p. 136, no. 58, ill. (color).
Marina Cellini inLa pittura in Italia: il Seicento. Ed. Mina Gregori and Erich Schleier. Milan, 1989, vol. 2, p. 772.
Nicholas Turner. "A drawing for Guercino's "Samson Taken by the Philistines"." Burlington Magazine 131 (January 1989), p. 29, ill., attributes to Guercino a drawing given to Ludovico Carracci in the Gabinetto dei Disegni (Uffizi, Florence) and identifies this drawing as a composition study for the Wrightsman picture; is uncertain whether the Uffizi drawing precedes or follows the study in the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, but observes that it would have made for a less expensive picture "since Guercino charged less for half lengths than for full lengths"
Denis Mahon and Nicholas Turner. The Drawings of Guercino in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle. Cambridge, 1989, p. 29, under no. 53.
David Marshall Stone. "Theory and Practice in Seicento Art: The Example of Guercino." PhD diss., Harvard University, 1989, pp. 329–38, fig. 107, identifies Delilah as the figure in the background at upper right.
David M. Stone. Guercino: catalogo completo dei dipinti. Florence, 1991, pp. 75–76, no. 54, ill. (color).
Carel van Tuyll van Serooskerken. Guercino (1591–1666): Drawings from Dutch Collections. Exh. cat.The Hague, 1991, p. 40, no. 4, compares the Teylers Museum drawing with the finished painting, calling the former relatively restrained and frieze-like, with a less unified narrative; believes that if Longhi's (1926) suggestion that the "Samson" and "Raising of Lazarus" were intended as pendants is correct, then the format of the MMA picture must have evolved first, "since the earliest known drawings for the "Lazarus" already show the squarish format adopted for both paintings"; credits Aiden Weston-Lewis with connecting a red chalk study in the Lugt Collection, Paris, previously attributed to Annibale Carracci, with the figure of Samson in the Wrightsman picture.
William M. Griswold. "Guercino." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 48 (Spring 1991), pp. 10, 13–17, 33, ill. (color), speculates that the composition study in the Teylers Museum at Haarlem may have belonged to Queen Christina of Sweden who visited Guercino in Bologna in 1655; suggests that the drawing in the Lugt Collection, Paris, may have been made as an exercise in life drawing and only later incorporated into the painting for Serra, as its red chalk medium was used by Guercino mainly for studies of individual figures and drapery.
Denis Mahon. Guercino: Master Painter of the Baroque. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1992, pp. 32, 180 [Italian ed., 1991].
Eliot W. Rowlands. The Collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: Italian Paintings, 1300–1800. Kansas City, Mo., 1996, p. 244.
Gabriele Finaldi inDiscovering the Italian Baroque: The Denis Mahon Collection. Exh. cat., National Gallery. London, 1997, p. 100, under no. 43.
Everett Fahy inThe Wrightsman Pictures. Ed. Everett Fahy. New York, 2005, pp. 27–31, no. 7, ill. (color).
Keith Christiansen. "Going for Baroque: Bringing 17th-Century Masters to the Met." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 62 (Winter 2005), pp. 37–39, fig. 33 (color), ill. on front cover (color detail).
Alejandro Vergara inRembrandt, pintor de historias. Ed. Alejandro Vergara. Exh. cat., Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid, 2008, p. 37, fig. 12 (color).
Silvia A. Centeno and Dorothy Mahon. "The Chemistry of Aging in Oil Paintings: Metal Soaps and Visual Changes." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 67 (Summer 2009), pp. 15–16, figs. 22–26 (color, overall, detail, and paint samples).
Keith Christiansen inPhilippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977–2008. New York, 2009, pp. 36–37.
Everett Fahy inPhilippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977–2008. New York, 2009, p. 32.
Laura Muti, and Daniele De Sarno Prignano, with the collaboration of Gabriello Milantoni. Guido Cagnacci: Hypóstasis. Faenza, 2009, fig. 10.
Keith Christiansen. "La création tardive d'une collection de peintures baroques au Metropolitan Museum of Art / Creating a Baroque Collection at the Metropolitan Late in the Game." Aux origines d'un goût: la peinture baroque aux États-Unis / Creating the Taste for Baroque Painting in America. Paris, 2015, pp. 66–67, 71–72, fig. 2 (color, gallery installation).
Michael Fried. After Caravaggio. New Haven, 2016, pp. 163, 167–73, 205 nn. 29, 31–32, p. 206 nn. 35–37, figs. 134–37 (color, overall and details), calls it "arguably the most profoundly conceived [painting] in Guercino's entire oeuvre"; discusses the significance of the central figure seen from the rear and of Delilah's action in pulling at the length of white cloth; suggests that the figure seen from the back in Velázquez's "Jacob Receiving the Coat of Joseph" (1630; Monasterio de San Lorenzo, El Escorial, Madrid) may have been inspired by this picture.
Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, pp. 280, 282, no. 211, ill. pp. 208, 282 (color).
Andrea Bayer. "Better Late than Never: Collecting Baroque Painting at The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Buying Baroque: Italian Seventeenth-Century Paintings Come to America. Ed. Edgar Peters Bowron. University Park, Pa., 2017, p. 137, fig. 56 (color).
Alain Roy inDe Giotto à Goya: Peintures italiennes et espagnoles du musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg. Strasbourg, 2017, p. 185, under no. 98.
A seventeenth-century copy after this painting is in the Musée d'Angoulême (181 x 237 cm).
Artist: After Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (Italian, Cento 1591–1666 Bologna) Date: 17th centuryMedium: Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, over traces of black chalk, on cream paperAccession: 80.3.453On view in:Not on view