Samson and Delilah
(Pompeo Girolamo Batoni)


Batoni painted relatively few Old Testament subjects during his career – less than a dozen over a fifty year stretch. The reasons for this are not clear, but must certainly have something to do with the decline in popularity of Old Testament themes in the eighteenth century and the exhaustion of the mediaeval doctrine that interpreted people and events in the Old Testament as prefiguring or foreshadowing episodes in the New. The present painting together with its companion The Idolatry of Solomon, signed and dated 1766, and which appeared in the sale room in 1984 in time to be included in the publication of Anthony Clark’s research on the artist,[1] are among the most ambitious treatments of Old Testament themes undertaken by the artist. Samson’s betrayal by Delilah and subsequent downfall is recorded in Judges 16:4-20. The last of the major Old Testament judges and hero of the popular Israelite saga, Samson was a nazirite, consecrated to the God of Israel through a special vow which forbade him to take strong drink, to cut his hair, or to have contact with the dead. The episode involving Delilah reveals the consequences of Samson’s violation of this vow. Delilah, a Philistine woman he had taken as a lover, had been bribed by the Philistines to persuade Samson to divulge the source of his great strength. When he revealed that his power lay in his hair, which had not been cut since birth, Delilah lulled him to sleep in her lap, summoned a man to shear his locks, and left him a helpless prey to his enemies. Batoni, like most illustrators of the theme, has shown Delilah herself holding the scissors and summoning the Philistines outside her chamber.

The subject of the companion painting, The Idolatry of Solomon (I Kings 11:1-8), also concerns the breaking of an agreement made between God and his people (as represented by Solomon) whereby Israel was to be faithful to God, and in return receive his protection and blessing. Solomon, however, had seven hundred wives of royal rank and three hundred concubines and ‘when he grew old his wives swayed his heart to other gods; and his heart was not wholly with Yahweh, his god, as his father David’s had been’. (See Fig. 1.).

Solomon built shrines to the pagan idols of his wives and sacrificed burnt offerings to their gods. Such impiety angered Yahweh who punished Solomon by dividing his kingdom, giving ten of the twelve tribes of Israel to Jeroboam, a foreigner. Only because of the Lord’s love for David did he leave one tribe, the kingdom of Judah, to Solomon’s descendants.

Batoni produced few history paintings during the decade of the 1760s, and these were generally large and extremely expensive. Observing his efforts to complete one of these, a Choice of Hercules (Leningrad, The Hermitage), which was acquired in 1766 by Count Kirill Razumovsky for 3000 zechins, one visitor to his studio in 1763 remarked: ‘Pompeo Batoni’s Hercules goes on at every leisure hour, which are not many, on account of the frequent Portraits that drop in…’.[2] That nothing is known either of the circumstances in which these Old Testament scenes were conceived or of the patron for whom they were painted is therefore surprising. Each canvas represented a major effort on Batoni’s part, and normally at this stage of his career such pictures were commissioned exclusively by the Church, European sovereigns and visiting nobility, and the occasional British Grand Tourist.

Samson and Delilah exemplifies Batoni’s style in the third quarter of the century as he gradually progressed toward the pictorial qualities of his last years. The deliberate prettiness, opulent finish and brilliant colour of the early history paintings have yielded to a manner of expression in which the forms are more faintly coloured, the opulence and sumptuousness are restrained, and the handling is drier and less rich. The composition is typical of the later work, simpler and narrower in depth and dominated by verticality, and the figures are considerably elongated. In each of these canvases Batoni has achieved the monumentality, grace, and simplicity which makes his later works so memorable, without any loss of precision or articulation in drawing. He would have made numerous drawings in the course of executing these compositions; only a single sheet, a black chalk study of the head and arm of one of the women in the Idolatry of Solomon survives.[3]

Numerous pentimenti are visible on the surface of the Samson and Delilah, including the fingers of Delilah’s right hand, Samson’s elbow and the fingers of his right hand, and the laces of his sandals.

(Caption for) Fig. 1. The Idolatry of Solomon, Formerly Piero Corsini, Inc.


[1] A. M. Clark, Pompeo Batoni. A Complete Catalogue of his Works with an Introductory Text, ed. E. P. Bowron, Oxford, 1985, no. 301A)

[2] Clark, op.cit. 1985, p. 300, under no. 288

[3] ibid., no. D113, formerly New York, Stanley Moss & Company.

82 ¼ x 56 ¾ in. 209 x 144 cm
Oil on Canvas

London, Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd., The Settecento: Italian Rococo and Early Neo-Classical Paintings 1700-1800, 4 Nov.-20 Dec. 1987, no. 16, colour pl. 17, (on loan).

Where is It?
Sold to the Detroit Institute of Arts by the Matthiesen Gallery
Historical Period
Rococo - 1720-1780
Religious: New Testament
Italian - Roman
1987-The Settecento: Italian Rococo and Early Neoclassical Paintings,1700-1800.
An exhibition held on behalf of Aids Crisis Trust (UK) and The American Foundation for Aids Research (USA). Introduction by Charles McCorquordale. Essays by Francis Russell, Edgar Peters Bowron, and Catherine Whistler. 200 pages, 31 colour plates, 88 black and white illustrations. £15 or $23 inc. p.& p.

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