Is "Samson and Delilah" a fake?

Just in time for London's big Rubens exhibition, a challenge to one of the heroic Flemish painter's most celebrated pictures heats up again.

Published December 19, 2005 12:45PM (EST)

There are few things the art world loves more than the whiff of scandal -- except, of course, a genuine, full-blown scandal. The bigger the money, the reputations of the power players and institutions, or the assumptions and authority of the art history that are involved, the better.

Now, as London's august National Gallery, home to one of the world's great collections of European art, trots out more than 100 drawings and paintings by the 17th century Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens in a blockbuster survey, "Rubens: A Master in the Making" (on view through Jan. 15), a long-standing controversy surrounding one of the highlights of the show has resurfaced. At issue: the authenticity of "Samson and Delilah," the celebrated painting from around 1609-10 that depicts the Old Testament hero Samson in the lap of the lover who betrayed him. The work was made for Nicolaas Rockox, a well-known city-government official in Antwerp, Belgium, just after Rubens returned to that city after eight years in Italy.

The dispute over its authorship pits the Athens-based artist, author and independent scholar Euphrosyne Doxiades and her supporters -- unassuming Davids in a story about an artist whose subjects were often drawn from history and myth -- against the Goliath of one of the world's most venerated art repositories.

So could the National Gallery's "Samson and Delilah," for which it paid more than $5 million at a 1980 Christie's auction -- a record at the time -- be a fake? After years of study, Doxiades believes there is ample evidence that the painting may not be the masterpiece the National Gallery believes it owns -- enough evidence to, if not prove her case, at least warrant an open investigation. Among the criticisms, Doxiades and other challengers say the composition of the painting is not the same one that must have appeared in Rubens' original; they believe the picture is painted in a style that is more heavy-handed than the master's own renowned style and they also find it odd that, in the dramatic image, one of Samson's feet is truncated. (The hero's essential extremity is not fully depicted within the pictorial space.)

"Rubens is the painter's painter par excellence; as a colorist and a draftsman, he is unique in the history of art," Doxiades notes. Her husky voice is full of passion when she speaks about the art and artists she admires. It also carries a hint of weariness, for she has been investigating the history of the disputed painting for more than a decade. "When I first saw the National Gallery's 'Samson and Delilah' in 1987," she says, "immediately I thought it could not have been painted by Rubens and I supposed that it was a copy -- a 20th century copy." For an institution like the National Gallery to present such a work as genuine, she says, is "offensive."

In the context of the big survey, which tracks the artist's rise from a prodigious apprentice in Antwerp's guild system to the leading international painter of his time, that's a stinging criticism of one of the show's most celebrated pieces. The arguments that Doxiades and others who dispute the authenticity of the National Gallery's "Samson and Delilah" have put forward appear on a new Web site,, which Doxiades and her son, a London computer expert, launched to coincide with the National Gallery's splashy Rubens presentation.

In the exhibition, along with "Samson and Delilah," imposing works like "The Fall of Phaeton" (circa 1604-06) and "The Massacre of the Innocents" (circa 1611-12) showcase the superb draftsmanship, the sweeping, inventive compositions and the paint-handling bravura that are hallmarks of Rubens' muscular art. In Britain, the New Statesman praised the show for doing "full justice" to Rubens' impressive "early prowess," and for making viewers "impatient" to learn more about his later accomplishments. In the Guardian, critic Simon Schama pointed out that the show calls attention to the "meaty, animal energy and high-voltage design" aspects for which Rubens is renowned.

Doxiades just wishes that the museum were showing, as she puts it, the real "Samson and Delilah" to help illustrate Rubens' considerable achievements during the early phase of his career. The National Gallery, by including the disputed work in the current exhibition and effectively ignoring the debate surrounding it, believes it is doing just that.

Born in 1946, Doxiades studied with the Austrian expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka at the school he ran in Salzburg and at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Later, when she was in her early 40s, she studied at the Wimbledon School of Art in London, as well. A regular instructor at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts, an international art school on the Greek island of Paros, Doxiades wrote "The Mysterious Fayum Portraits" (Thames & Hudson, 2000), a respected study of ancient, Roman-Egyptian paintings that were used, in their time, to honor the dead, and whose haunting beauty and technical refinement have dazzled artists right up to the present day.

In 1992, along with the London artists Steven Harvey and Siân Hopkinson, Doxiades submitted a written analysis to the National Gallery challenging the designated authorship of its "Samson and Delilah." (You can get the report in PDF format here.) For a while, it appeared that the museum took their argument seriously enough to have entered their analysis into its permanent research file on the historic work of art. More recently, however, in light of the current exhibition, the museum seems to regard the challenge as something of an annoyance.

"Anyone is allowed to say anything about any painting in a public collection," notes David Jaffe, the National Gallery's current senior curator, who says Doxiades and her colleagues' questions about the painting are "welcome." But he adds that he thinks their argument "probably just died out because there was no serious Rubens scholar who believed it." Jaffe's predecessor, Christopher Brown, who is now director of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at Oxford University, had been in communication with Doxiades about the disputed Rubens painting during his tenure in London. In response to the 1992 analysis that Doxiades sent him, Brown had written back to the Greek artist, admitting that, because of the artwork's peculiar provenance, which was very sketchy, it was "impossible to be one-hundred percent certain that this is the picture [that Rubens] painted for Rockox." Brown did note, however, that there was "much circumstantial evidence" to support the assertion that the painting indeed was a real Rubens. (Asked to comment for Salon on his past involvement in the controversy surrounding "Samson and Delilah," Brown replied, by e-mail: "I am sorry but I don't want to do this. Please address your questions to the National Gallery.")

A few years after Doxiades and her colleagues sent their 1992 paper to the museum, the London Times' arts writer Dalya Alberge published an article about their challenge. Doxiades recalls that Alberge contacted Brown, who "agreed to do a dendrochronology test and said that I could be present."

At the time, Doxiades remembers, "it was very rewarding" to be taken seriously by the museum's chief curator, and to see that Peter Klein from the University of Hamburg, one of Europe's -- and the world's -- best-known dendrochronologists, had been brought in to do the test. (Dendrochronology examines tree rings in pieces of wood to establish their age. The technique has been used to determine when old pictures on wooden panels -- including many Netherlandish paintings on oak -- were created.) Ultimately, though, Klein's wood-age test corroborated the National Gallery's claim of the work's authenticity, at least in terms of its physical age.

Still, Doxiades had her doubts, especially since the opportunity to get up close and personal with the centuries-old artwork at the time of the test had allowed her to see it unencumbered, without a frame. It was then that she noticed that the backing board on which it had been mounted looked like blockboard, a modern kind of plywood.

"Stylistically, it was all wrong," she says. "As an object, it had no presence." By contrast, she notes, "Even at a distance, in a museum, when an object does have a presence, I feel like crossing myself like a Greek Orthodox, because it is almost religiously valid." Instead, she explains, when she encountered "Samson and Delilah" up close, "There was just this piece of dead timber lying on a blockboard; it looked like it had been ironed on. It had no texture of oak whatsoever."

(More recently, Doxiades became aware of a document issued by the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory, an independent tree-ring dating organization in England. It referred to the disputed painting's wood support as lacking essential sapwood elements that would make for a more accurate reading of its age. The laboratory noted that, as a result, the work could "just as easily" have been painted as late as 1620 or 1630. Physical age alone, such remarks seem to suggest, may not precisely determine if the picture is a Rubens or not.)

Among several stylistic aspects of the painting, Doxiades also noticed that, at the lower right edge of the picture, Samson's stretched-out right foot was truncated -- and that it had intentionally been painted that way. That detail, she says, appeared inconsistent with Rubens' usual compositional practices and with two well-known copies of the image that had been made during Rubens' lifetime. One was a detailed engraving of his "Samson and Delilah" made by Jacob Matham just a few years after Rubens completed his picture. On his engraving, Matham even included a written dedication to Nicolaas Rockox, calling attention to the precision with which he had copied the Rubens original. A second copy of the Rubens work was actually a painting within a painting; it appears above a monumental mantelpiece in "Supper at the House of Burgomaster Rockox" (circa 1630), a view of the sitting room in Rockox's Antwerp home where the Rubens picture had been installed. Although less detailed than a full-scale copy of the original would have been, the composition of the painting, by the Flemish artist Frans Francken II (1581-1642), clearly matches up with that of Matham's engraving. (Today, Francken's painting is in the collection of the Alte Pinakothek.)

Among numerous critical points or discrepancies mentioned on the Web site or in the 1992 analysis paper written by Doxiades and her colleagues is the fact that Matham's and Francken's "Samson and Delilah" copies show only three Philistine soldiers lurking in a doorway on the right side of the picture, whereas the National Gallery's picture depicts five. (Delilah, accepting a bribe from the Philistines, conspired to cut her Jewish lover's hair, the source of his strength, while he was sleeping, then turn him over, powerless, to the military men.)

The Web site also criticizes the "hack-illustration" quality of the drawing of the face of an old woman who appears next to Delilah, holding a candle, and of the rendering of Samson's face and head (with its "abandoned, half-drawn curls" and "formless jumble of smudged browns" for a beard.) It also calls attention, most obviously, to the same old woman's uplifted right hand, which displays none of the masterly foreshortening and understanding of anatomy that seem so effortless in much of Rubens' other work, like another old woman's outstretched hand in "The Massacre of the Innocents."

The criticism of the National Gallery's "Samson and Delilah" also raises questions about its provenance, which becomes murky and hard to confirm after Rockox's death in 1640, when it was auctioned off with the rest of his estate. Thereafter, as far as existing official records are concerned, it disappeared. In 1674, in the records of the collection of the prince of Liechtenstein, a reference does turn up to a work titled "Caritas Romana," attributed to "Joan Hoek." (That would be Jan van den Hoecke (1611-51), a student of Rubens who became a well-known Flemish painter in his own right). Much later, as its subject matter became better understood, that painting became known as "Samson and Delilah" instead. However, as the former director of the Liechtenstein Collection explained in writing to Doxiades, no one knows exactly who figured out what the picture depicted and renamed it accordingly. He also confirmed that, in contrast to the usual practice, the artwork bore no royal seals designating it as the former property of the Liechtenstein Collection.

That same painting was sold in Paris in 1881, possibly to an independent art dealer. It was then acquired by a German industrialist. (Why it was put up for sale remains unknown. That curious fact prompted the Web site to note: "[W]e must accept" that, for nearly two centuries, "successive generations of curators at the Liechtenstein Collection had failed to realize that they were in possession of a masterpiece.")

The painting resurfaced in Paris in 1929, and soon thereafter was attributed to the 17th century Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst before being declared a real Rubens by the Rubens expert Ludwig Burchard. At this point, too, Burchard first indicated in writing that the picture had once been part of the Liechtenstein Collection (a claim that the 1980 Christie's sale catalog would later make again).

Supposedly, the painting that the National Gallery purchased at auction, which was sold off by the German industrialist's heirs, was the same work that once had been in Liechtenstein. However, points out, "[T]here is no evidence whatsoever to show that the National Gallery painting, which appeared in 1929, is the same object as the Liechtenstein Collection painting which was sold [to the German industrialist] in 1881." Thus, the question remains: After Rockox died, whatever happened to the painting Rubens had made for the good Antwerp burgher? To date, no clear, firm answer has emerged.

The Belgian painter, writer and filmmaker Harold Van de Perre, who has written a book about Rubens and authored a screenplay for a film about the artist, writes on the Web site that he has personally visited all the major museums in the world that display works by the Flemish master. "A trained eye ...," he states, "can see that the 'Samson and Delilah' is clearly a copy" because "what makes Rubens unique and the thing that constitutes his signature, namely his powerful brushstroke, is just not present."

Jane Pack, an American painter who has taught for nearly 20 years at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts, where Euphrosyne Doxiades has been her colleague, and who has followed the Greek artist's critique of the National Gallery's painting, specializes in the kinds of classical painting techniques that Rubens employed. These techniques include glazing, or the building up of watery layers of transparent oil paint that can give a painted image a distinct luminosity. As Pack sees the disputed "Samson and Delilah," one of its most obvious discrepancies is that it was "painted with a post-impressionist mindset, although it's meant to be a baroque painting."

Rubens was known for "starting with a transparent lay-in of shadow areas" and then "building up opaque paint in the lights, which he applied quite heavily," Pack explains. "He manipulated these opaque lights" in his work, she says, "with quite a heavy hand, making a kind of bumpy surface," but thereafter he was "very careful about differences between transparency and opacity." This is where the glazing technique came in, "giving that golden glow that is typical of Rubens." Typically, she adds, in the Flemish master's work, "the glaze looks like it is held in all the crevices" of a painting's surface, but in the disputed "Samson and Delilah," "that is not at all evident; in fact, you don't ... see any evidence that it has been glazed at all."

Pack explains that the baroque artist's bag of painterly tricks included a skilled use of glazing -- which can also be thought of as an optical layering on of color -- to achieve spatial effects and the contouring of forms, and to give a convincing sense of where light fell on the subject matter he portrayed. By contrast, she says, the National Gallery's painting appears to be the product of a more modern hand, since its colors appear to have been physically mixed instead of constructed through glazing; that is, instead of building up transparent layers of color to suggest forms and shadows, its maker appeared to have taken the post-impressionist approach of placing different kinds of lighter or darker colors side by side to suggest three-dimensional modeling and the play of light. The touch and the appearance of that more modern kind of painting feel and look inherently heavier and less nuanced.

"Post-impressionist painters never deal with transparency and opaqueness very much, and they never glaze," Pack says. "They're more likely to try to mix colors directly and play with where they are placed in space. That's what you see in the National Gallery's 'Samson and Delilah.'"

And then there's that pesky foot. Compared to similar details in some of Rubens' other works, it offers a "striking difference" and an obvious "contradiction" that even a "child can see," points out.

Samson's entire, extended right foot is clearly visible in the Matham engraving and in Francken's tableau, with an ample amount of space between the tips of the sleepy strongman's toes and the right-hand edge of each respective image. In the National Gallery's painting, though, the toes of Samson's extended right foot are cut off at the picture's edge. Doxiades and her colleagues argue that the real Rubens "Samson and Delilah" that Matham and Francken would have copied would have depicted Samson's right foot just as they did. However, senior curator Jaffe scoffs about the hair-shorn hero's truncated toes: "Oh come on! It's what artists do! It's called mannerism. It's a normal part of 16th century aesthetics."

Jaffe admits that he often finds "that contemporary painters, of whatever ilk, or conservators, who look at things totally differently, have valuable things to say which you learn from." But, for now, he still dismisses the challengers of the National Gallery's "Samson and Delilah" as dissenters who are merely "trying to boost their own fame and fortune."

Nevertheless, some significant critics have submitted comments to or have been quoted on the Web site voicing their concerns about the museum's celebrated painting. There, the Renaissance-art historian Richard Fremantle is quoted remarking, "It is so vulgar. The crudeness of the picture, the color, the manner of portraying it is like no highly intelligent sensitive artist could have painted. Rubens is a great painter. This is not by a great painter."

Similarly, Michael Daley, the director of ArtWatch U.K., a branch of an international monitoring organization that tries to prevent works of art from being harmed by renovation or conservation efforts and which looks after what it calls their "integrity," notes: "It does seem astonishing that the National Gallery ever considered buying this picture as a Rubens. Everything that could be wrong with it is."

Other presumably less authorative art lovers also jump into the fray on the Web site's discussion boards, including Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, who writes, "Cutting off the toes of a hero's foot is a clear sign that this painting is not the work of a master. Rubens was a great respecter of naked feet and I am shocked that the National Gallery can hang a painting by someone who has such contempt for the sensitivities of modern, art-loving, pediphiles." Marc Deblois, a truck driver from London, Canada, is another critic of the painting: "A master surely would not unveil such awful tripe," he writes.

Niki Mardas, Doxiades' son, who studied classics at Cambridge University and designed, hopes the Web site will help to ignite another round of debate about the painting in the art world. "The government says we just need to have trust in the National Gallery. That's fine, but ... at what point are we allowed to criticize and get a debate going? ... To me that just seems like you're shutting down debate in the place where you ought most to be having it."

As Doxiades herself puts it, also focusing on the issue of institutional trustworthiness, "I believe museums should be like doctors -- you trust them. So when the public trusts a museum like the National Gallery and is told, 'This is a great masterpiece,' but it turns out that maybe it isn't, that's an insult to the Rembrandts, van Goghs, Vermeers and all the other highlights of the collection. It's the miseducation of the public that I don't like."

It's also a high-priced embarrassment for any museum, although, of course, misattributions of historic artworks do sometimes occur. Still, when they come to light, the authority of recognized "experts" can be rudely knocked down a notch. And that, for some ordinary museum-goers and art-world powers alike, is downright scandalous.

By Edward M. Gomez

Edward M. Gomez writes the daily "World Views" international-news digest for SFGate, the online edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

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