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'Samson', by Solomon Solomon (1860-1927)


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About the artwork

Solomon Joseph Solomon was the fourth son of Joseph Solomon, a London businessman, and Helena Lichenstadt, the daughter of a cultured family from Vienna. In 1877 Solomon joined the Royal Academy School. Frederick Leighton, the President of the Royal Academy, as well as successful artists such as Millais and Alma Tadema were the role models for young Solomon and his fellow students, Alexander Stanhope Forbes and Arthur Hacker.

In 1879 Solomon was taught by Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) in the École de Beaux Arts in Paris. In comparison with the Royal Academy, teaching in the École focused more on drawing from life models than plaster casts of ancient sculptures. Despite his studies in France Solomon was very little influenced by Impressionism. Solomon also studied in the Munich Academy for three months and travelled together with Arthur Hacker in Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain and Morocco.

In 18S6 Solomon became a founding member of the New English Art Club - a group of artists who reacted to the restrictive selection policies of the Royal Academy. Other members of the Club were the painters Whistler, Steer and Sickert. Solomon did not carry on exhibiting with the New English Art Club, probably because he was alienated by the outspoken opposition of the Club's leaders to the Royal Academy. Solomon exhibited in the Royal Academy between 1881 and 1904 and was elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1895 and an Academician in 1906.

'Samson' was painted when Solomon was only 27 years old, in his new studio in Holland Park. At that time Solomon was starting to gain a reputation, especially as a portrait painter. Millais visited the artist in his studio while he was painting Samson and was surprised that such a large picture could be painted in a small studio. 'Samson' caused a stir when exhibited at the Royal Academy and became Solomon's, best known painting. Solomon may have been attracted to the theme because of his Jewish origins. However the artist departed from the Bible, according to which Samson was bound by the Philistines at Gaza and not as in the painting in the presence of Delilah.

The model for Samson was the artist's younger brother Philip who was very muscular. Delilah's head was modelled from a young Indian woman, Therese Abdullah, the daughter of Sir Albert Sassoon's cook. For the body of Delilah, Solomon used as his model a young Italian woman, Madeline Fionda.

The realism of each of the figures as well as their different postures reflects the artist's training and skill. The bound body of Samson occupies the centre of the composition; the semi-circle shaped by the turn of Samson's body is completed in the body and gesture of Delilah. The Philistines struggling to restrain the resisting Samson counterbalance the weight and strength of the hero's body. The group of intertwined men resembles the ancient Hellenestic sculpture of Laocoon and his sons' death agonies as they are crushed by serpents. The body of the Philistine who appears to hang from Samson is painted as if coming out of the canvas.

The contrast between Delilah's young body and face and Samson's masculinity accentuates Delilah's victory over Samson. She has not only achieved her mission by devious means but she has also taken pleasure in deceiving him, as her mocking gesture and her rejoicing facial expression reveal. Delilah is depicted more as a joyful dancer rather than as a sinister woman. One may sense the tragedy of Samson's capture but one may also empathise with Delilah's satisfaction.

The influence of the style of paintings of the Parisian Salon can be seen both in the scale of the painting and in the way Solomon conveys the intense drama of the scene. The room is dimly lit and confusion reigns: the man on the floor, the overturned table and the swinging lamp are witness to a fierce combat. The plane of the picture is interrupted by the bodies and gestures of the figures and the eye is drawn both backward and forward. The entry of the soldiers in the rear foretells the climax of the scene.

The objects in the room such as the lamp, the tiger skin, the fabrics and the curtain seem to have carefully been selected and give a theatrical quality to the painting. We know that the artist's studio was always full of a collection of props.

Mr James Harrison, a Liverpool shipowner, bought Samson when it was exhibited in the Royal Academy. Harrison then presented the painting as a Jubilee gift to the Walker Art Gallery. 1887 marked the 50th year of Queen Victoria's reign.

The theme of Samson was also painted by Rubens (1577-1640) (National Gallery) and Van Dyck (1599-1641) (Dulwich Picture Gallery).

During the First World War Solomon visited France to inspect the French work on camouflage and report on possibilities for the British. He then worked in the Special Works Park in France where French and British artists collaborated producing camouflage netting and screens. Solomon was instrumental in setting up a camouflage school in London's Kensington Gardens.