Samson and Delilah (c.1784) by John Francis RigaudRoyal Academy of Arts
This 18th-century painting tells part of the story of Samson and Delilah from the Old Testament of the Bible.
This is Samson, an Israelite warrior well-known for his supernatural strength (bestowed on him by God).
He’s been fleeing from a group of people called the Philistines, represented by these two figures.
He’s fallen in love with Delilah, one of the Philistines. They’ve secretly offered her a large amount of silver if she can figure out how to overpower Samson’s immense strength.
Delilah is hastily pulling the curtain across so that Samson can’t see his enemies lurking nearby.
After much questioning from Delilah, Samson has told her that if he’s tied up with bow strings he’ll lose his strength, so Delilah has shackled him in his sleep.
But it was all a lie! Samson is able to break free of the ropes.
Oddly, this happens three times before Samson eventually reveals that if his hair is ever cut he’ll lose his strength. Soon enough, Delilah chops off his hair. Then, as the Bible says, Samson realises that “the LORD was departed from him. But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza […] and he did grind in the prison house.”
During his spell in prison, Samson’s hair grows back and so does his strength. When he’s brought out in front of a braying crowd at the temple, he manages to push the building down, killing thousands of Philistines and himself.
Samson’s pose is based on Renaissance artist Michelangelo’s figure of Haman that he painted in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, and perhaps also an ancient Roman statue of a nude male known as the Belvedere Torso.
His rich, fleshy skin is intended to echo the work of another Renaissance artist, Peter Paul Rubens.
Rigaud was using this painting to show off his knowledge of the Bible and well-regarded artists of the past. He was also trying to demonstrate how well he could paint the male nude in an active pose: translating what he learnt from ancient sculptures and grand Renaissance mural paintings.
Samson and Delilah is currently hanging in the RA's Collection Gallery, which you can visit for free, or you can take a guided tour online.