Samson and Delilah

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (called il Guercino), Italian, 1591 - 1666

Made in Italy, Europe


Pen and brown ink (possibly iron gall) on laid paper mounted on paper

Sheet: 7 15/16 x 9 9/16 inches (20.1 x 24.3 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Purchased with the Alice Newton Osborn Fund, the Lola Downin Peck Fund, and the John D. McIlhenny Fund, 1994

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The painting for which this work is a preliminary sketch depicts Samson, an Old Testament Israelite judge famous for his great strength, unwisely confiding to his mistress Delilah that his force resides in his hair, which would allow her to cut the potent locks while he slept and betray him to the Philistines. The canvas is recorded as paid for on 31 March 1646 in Guercino's account book.

Additional information:
  • PublicationItalian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    The subject and date of this drawing can be established on the basis of two early references. Guercino’s Libro dei conti (account book) of 31 March 1646 mentions payment by Cardinal Falconieri for a painting showing Samson and Delilah half-figure, “quando le mostrò che ne’ capeli stava posta la forza sua” (when he shows her that his strength resides in his hair), a precise description of the subject of the drawing. Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia repeated the same general information (1678, vol. 2, p. 375; 1841, vol. 2, p. 266; quoted in Salerno, p. 302, no. 228), writing that in 1646 the artist produced a pair of large paintings “per il Cardinal Falconieri Legato di Bologna, cioè una Dalida che mostra i capelli recisi à Sansone, & un Saule che tenta uccidere Davide con la lancia” (for Cardinal Falconieri [papal] Legate at Bologna, that is, a Delilah showing the hair cut from Samson, and a Saul trying to kill David with a lance). Guercino’s own description of the subject in his account book is more accurate than Malvasia’s and shows that he chose a more subtle aspect of the drama. He explains that the moment depicted is the one in which Samson trustingly reveals to Delilah the secret of his strength, thus sealing his own fate. The decisions that Guercino made in proceeding from preparatory drawing to finished painting are revealing, as always, of his thought processes. In the painting he reversed the composition, putting Samson on the right in full battle regalia, so that a natural reading of the drama from left to right climaxes with Samson’s gesture. Delilah is more sumptuously attired and gestures in surprise instead of, as in the drawing, demurely clasping her hands over her breast. The drawing retains the spontaneous calligraphic line characteristic of all Guercino’s pen sketches of the 1640s. It also demonstrates his penchant for classical compositions in his later work, shown by a preference for figures located in shallow space on the frontal plane of the picture. Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 11.

    Malvasia, Count Carlo Cesare. Felsina pittrice: vite de' pittori bolognesi. Edited by Giampietro Zanotti. 2 vols [1678] Bologna: Guidi all'Ancora, 1841., vol. 2, p. 375; 1841, vol. 2, p. 266;
    Salerno, Luigi. I dipinti del Guercino. Rome: Ugo Bozzi, 1988, p. 302, no. 228;
    Thos. Agnew and Sons Ltd. London.Old Master Drawings from Holkham: Collected by the 1st Earl of Leicester (1697-1759). Catalogue by Clovis Whitfield and Gabriel Naughton. London: Thos. Agnew and Sons, [1977], no. 47;
    Popham, A. E., and Christopher Lloyd. Old Master Drawings at Holkham Hall. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986, no. 150;
    Salerno, Luigi. Idipinti del Guercino. Rome: Ugo Bozzi, 1988, p. 302, under no. 228;
    Mahon, Denis, and Nicholas Turner. The Drawings of Guercino in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. , p. 190, under no. 649;
    London, British Museum. Drawings by Guercino from British Collections. Exhibition catalogue by Nicholas Turner and Carol Plazzotta. London: British Museum Press in association with Leonardo-De Luca, 1991, no. 143, repro.