CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Masterpieces from the World’s Museums in the Hermitage: Rembrandt, The Blinding of Sampson, from the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt-am-Main

Exhibition: 10 August - 31 October 2004

From the museum website

The exhibition in the Hall N 251 of the New Hermitage is dedicated to Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Blinding of Sampson, on loan from the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut (Frankfurt-am-Main).

The story of Sampson and Delilah was used as the basis for numerous paintings. It was Sampson’s mission to put an end to the rule of the Philistines over the people of Israel and God granted him unparalleled strength with which he performed a multitude of feats. However, his love for the Philistine woman Delilah led to his demise.

Bribed by her kinsmen, Delilah used her wiles to get Sampson to tell her the source of his great strength. Yielding to her requests, Sampson revealed his secret: “if my hair is cut off, then my strength will go away.” In the night, when he slept, Delilah cut Sampson’s hair and then let in the Philistines, who seized and blinded him and then led him away in chains. While in captivity he performed his final feat of strength. His hair had begun to grow back and with it came his force. An unfortunate blind man, Sampson was led in chains into the home of his enemies, and he then brought down the roof of the palace during their feast, dying under the debris together with the Philistines.

Rembrandt’s work presents one of the culminating moments of the legend, the denouement of the lovers’ relations, which is amazing in its openness and cruelty. The painter faced the problem of conveying strong emotions through persuasive gestures and the movements of the main figures. In the work this high emotion found clear embodiment.

In The Blinding of Sampson the large format of the canvas, the many figures and theatrical sumptuousness of the staging help to create an unusual spectacle. The scene is literally filled with the noise of battle, with the shouts and moans of the victim. The precision and expressiveness of the details allow us to read the composition easily.

The artist has chosen to portray the moment of vengeance, the blinding of the hero. But Rembrandt transforms even this very cruel scene by his brilliant painting.

It has been suggested that The Blinding of Sampson has come down to us in a reduced format. Analysis of the canvas indicates that its structure is identical to the base of another of Rembrandt’s masterpieces, Danae, which is in the Hermitage. Evidently both pieces of canvas of these paintings were cut from the same roll. Not only the dimensions, but also the logic of the compositions links these two works. Both portray a scene in an alcove and the figures are shown in natural size.

There are those who say that The Blinding of Sampson is the canvas which Rembrandt speaks of in his correspondence with Constantijn Huygens, the secretary of Frederick Hendrick, Prince of Orange (1590-1687). It was with the help of Huygens that the artist received the commission for The Passions series (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). In one of his letters the artist speaks of completing two compositions from this series: The Entombment of Christ and The Resurrection. Rembrandt adds that in recognition for the efforts of this “gentleman” he would like to present him with a painting “10 feet long and 8 feet high.” The artist did not indicate anywhere what the subject of the donated canvas might be and it remains unknown whether Huygens received the gift from the painter.

Among the innumerable canvases dealing with biblical subjects, Rembrandt’s composition may be said to be the greatest work devoted to the story of Sampson’s love for Delilah.