One of the great figures of seventeenth-century painting, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri was born in the town of Cento, not far from Ferrara. His nickname, Guercino—literally, “the little crossed-eyed”—derives from an eye defect evident in portraits of the artist. Although at the age of sixteen he worked for a time with a local artist, Benedetto Gennari the elder, and then briefly in Bologna with minor figures, Paolo Zagnoni and Giovanni Battista Cremonini, he was in many respects self-taught. Of crucial importance for his career was an altarpiece by Ludovico Carracci in the local Capuchin church (the altarpiece is now in the Pinacoteca). In Cento—the center of his activities until his move to Bologna in 1642—he became the senior partner of the Gennari workshop. Enormously gifted, he had already secured an independent commission by 1613; three years later he set up an academy for drawing from the model, which he did in black chalk with extraordinary vigor (for example: 2004.250
). The following year he was in Bologna working for Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi, who, as Pope Gregory XV, would later employ Guercino in Rome. Ludovico Carracci was astonished at the still youthful Guercino, writing to the poet/collector Ferrante Carli, “There is a young man here born in Cento who paints with the happiest of inventiveness. He is a great draftsman and a felicitous colorist: he is a phenomenon of nature and a wonder capable of astounding all who see his works” (letter of October 25, 1617). Indeed, from this point Guercino was among the most sought after painters of the day, refusing invitations to work at the courts of Charles I in London and Marie de’ Medici in Paris.
Guercino’s career can be divided into three main periods, the first—of which Samson Captured by the Philistines
is one of the masterpieces—culminating in the invitation to come to Rome to work for Gregory XV and his cardinal nephew Ludovico Ludovisi (1621–23); his altarpiece for Saint Peter’s showing the burial of Saint Petronilla (Capitoline Museum, Rome) is a landmark in the history of Baroque art. The second, in which the compositional vigor and dramatic lighting of his early works is increasingly tempered by a concern for greater clarity of structure and elegance, can be followed with great consistency up to 1642, when the artist moved to Bologna and supplanted the recently deceased Guido Reni as the most important painter in the city. The Met owns a key work from this last phase: The Vocation of Saint Aloysius (Luigi) Gonzaga
). The ideas underlining these stylistic changes and their relation to humanistic culture have been brilliantly explicated in a key essay by Sybille Ebert-Schifferer.The Picture:
The picture illustrates a famous scene from the Old Testament book of Judges (16:17–21). Samson, the Hebrew strong man in their resistance against the Philistines, was so incautious as to fall in love with the Philistine beauty Delilah. Having coaxed from him the source of his strength—his long hair—she then lulled him to sleep in her lap, “and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head . . . and his strength went from him. And she said, 'The Philistines be upon thee, Samson.' And he awoke out of his sleep . . . And he wist not that the Lord was departed from him. But the Philistines took him and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison house.” We can trace the genesis of the picture through four drawings, the most important of which is in The Met’s collection (2018.196
). Drawings provided Guercino with a rapid-fire means of exploring various approaches to a subject, and it is in them that we can appreciate the justice of Ludovico Carracci’s appraisal of the young man when he arrived in Bologna in 1617 (see above).
In an early study for the Samson
in the Teylers Museum, Haarlem (see fig. 1 above), Guercino first considered dividing the composition bilaterally, with, in the left half, Samson, his head shaved, struggling to rise from Delilah’s lap while she triumphantly raises her hands, waving a comb and a lock of hair. Her maidservant ties a rope around the fallen hero’s arm while Philistine soldiers arrive on the right. Another compositional drawing, in the Uffizi, has been discussed by Nicholas Turner (1989; fig. 2). In The Met’s drawing—in which the full arsenal of Guercino’s drawing techniques are in play, from rapidly scrawled pen lines exploring the dynamic posing of the figures to more descriptive pen work delineating their features to brushed-on shadows of varying darkness that create the impression of light flickering across the surface—Samson, viewed from the back, his face hidden from view, becomes the focus of the composition. The scene is staged in a portico bordered by two columns and there is a contrast between the densely grouped figures descending on Samson from the left and a view onto the sky and landscape on the right. What is clear in this drawing is Guercino’s desire to identify a climactic moment suggestive of an unfolding drama rather than a frozen action. A drawing of a seated figure, his lower torso draped, viewed from the back (Institut Néerlandais, Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection, Paris; fig. 3), may be a study leading to Guercino’s rethinking of the scene. In any event, The Met’s drawing seems to mark the last stages of a process of radical rethinking of the subject—a part of what Michael Fried (2016, p. 165) has described as Guercino’s project “aiming to establish a new kind of communication and exchange, at once intimate and distanced, corporeally involving and structurally removed, between the world of the painting and that of the viewer.” Importantly, he sees The Met’s painting as the climax of this project and “arguably the most profoundly conceived in Guercino’s entire oeuvre.”
The major change from the drawing is the elimination of the columns, with a female figure shown fleeing the scene but unable to resist turning back to catch a fleeting glance at the unfolding capture and blinding, and a further clarification of the dynamic relationship between the vainly struggling Samson, his legs flailing, his head in the grips of a soldier, and the seductively attired Delilah tugging at a cloth, her gaze fixed on her defeated lover. The melee of soldiers has gained in density, with a bug-eyed man wielding the metal-tipped pole by which Samson will be blinded while another, in the background, makes way for the advancing soldiers as he brandishes the scissors in one hand and a comb in the other—a biting comment on the weapons that brought down the Hebrew hero.The Patron:
The history of the commission and provenance of The Met’s painting has been reconstructed in detail by Denis Mahon, from whose 1981 article the information that follows has been taken. The patron was Cardinal Jacopo Serra (1570–1623), who belonged to a patrician Genoese family (his mother was Claudia Lomellini). Prior to being created cardinal by Pope Paul V in 1611, he was put in charge of the Papal treasury—a position he retained after becoming a cardinal. In 1615 he was appointed cardinal legate (or governor) of Ferrara, which since 1598 was part of the Papal States. Cento is not a great distance from Ferrara and Guercino came to the cardinal’s notice and went to Ferrara to work for him. Previously, in Rome, Serra had promoted Peter Paul Rubens, offering the Oratorians 300 scudi for the pictorial decoration of the high altar of Santa Maria in Vallicella provided that the young Rubens be hired for the task. Our principal source of information on Guercino, Malvasia (1678), records that in 1619 the artist was summoned from Cento to Ferrara by Serra, and there “made many paintings, and they were: a Saint Sebastian, when his wounds are succored, with various figures; a Samson and Delilah, who cuts his hair; a Prodigal son received by his father.” The Saint Sebastian is in the Pincacoteca Nazionale, Bologna; the Prodigal son in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. On September 8, 1619, Serra made a visit to Cento, where he was presented with a painting by Guercino by the local authorities, who evidently knew how much the cardinal admired the artist’s work. A letter informs us that Guercino had, indeed, been the cardinal’s honored guest in Ferrara “for several months” to paint some pictures that greatly pleased the cardinal. Guercino then returned to Ferrara to paint for Serra and his nephew, Giovan Paolo Serra. Among these is a painting of Elijah Fed by Ravens, now in the National Gallery, London, and a Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. In token of his admiration, Serra knighted the painter, making him a cavalliero on December 8, 1620. It is interesting to note that at the same time he was employed by Serra, Guercino painted an Erminia with the Shepherd (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) for Ferdinando Gonzaga, whose father had employed Rubens in Mantua. Guercino had been delayed in fulfilling that commission because of his work for Serra.
A copy of the picture is in the Musée d'Angoulême (fig. 4).
The picture, which has an interesting history (see Provenance) is not as well preserved as the other pictures belonging to the Serra commissions. When it arrived at The Met in 1979, the surface was found to have been somewhat flattened in a relining. Thin in parts, the transitions in the shadows have lost in subtlety and richness, compromising the clarity of some of the forms (as, for example, in the legs of Samson or the sleeves of Delilah’s blouse). The right hand of Delilah had to be reconstructed and, hence, lacks the articulated structure one would expect.
Keith Christiansen 2018
 Sybille Ebert-Schifferer. "'Ma c'hanno da fare i precetti dell'oratore con quelli della pittura?': Reflections on Guercino's Narrative Structure," in Denis Mahon, Guercino: Master Painter of the Baroque
, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992, pp. 75–110.