Rubens traveled in Italy from 1600 to 1608. There he studied classical antiquities, the work of Titian, Michelangelo, and Raphael, and the art of his contemporaries. After returning to his hometown of Antwerp, Rubens was commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox, the burgomaster, or mayor, to make a large painting of Samson and Delilah. For a politician, this biblical story of fatal gullibility may have had particular significance. As part of the process, Rubens made this small oil sketch so that Rockox could see and approve his ideas for the composition and color. It evidently met with the patron’s approval because the finished picture, substantially larger and on display today in the National Gallery in London, hardly differs from the sketch.
The Cincinnati sketch demonstrates Rubens’s knowledge and his assimilation of the art of the past. The pose of Samson, for instance, is inspired not only by the powerful works of Michelangelo, but by works that motivated Michelangelo himself, such as the great "Belvedere Torso" (first century B.C.) from the Vatican collection. Rubens’s strong contrasts of light and shadow, known by the Italian term chiaroscuro, derive from Caravaggio, whose work he would have seen in Rome. Although Rubens created oil sketches primarily as part of his working process, even in his lifetime the sketches were prized by collectors for their unsurpassed facility of line, color, and narrative invention.