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Why, why, why, Delilah

Why, why, why, Delilah

In the words of Tom Jones, “I could see that girl  was no good for me…”. Colnaghi are currently exhibiting “Samson and Delilah”,  by Willem Bartsius, one of very few works known to still exist by the Dutch painter. Only six signed works by Bartsius are known to have survived, while a further 10 have been attributed to him for their stylistic analogy. Following the recent reattribution, this painting – which shows Samson in the act of being shorn and thus losing his superhuman strength – has been described as Bartsius’ masterpiece.

The exuberant Delilah, is the focal draw of the painting. Both she, her ample charms (‘il y a du monde au balcon’), and the sea of gold silk that surrounds her, light up a shadowy theatrical painting. This light is picked up on Samson’s discarded turban and the white of Samson’s shirt as he lies slumped over Delilah’s knees, his locks falling to the floor.

Copyright P&D Colnaghi & Co Ltd

It is an uneasy, absorbing painting; the theatrical space is for the most part empty and yet around the figure of Delilah the scene is claustrophobic. The urgency of cutting Samson’s hair is heightened by the gesticulating silhouettes that frame the activity at the foreground. Delilah directs her stare out at us – we are complicit in what is taking place. To underline this, she holds a finger up to us, perhaps as a warning to say nothing or perhaps to take note that a dagger lies in the folds of her dress. The cast that crowd round her are gnomish and fantastic, their clothing eclectic: here, feathered turbans, furs, doublets, and Chinese parasols are the clothing of choice.

Bartsius was known for painting similarly theatrical works, creating often interior stage sets as the setting for allegories and themes from mythology,  literature and portraits. His surviving output consists principally of biblical subjects, for which there was a ready market in Amsterdam at the time.

Very little is known of his formative years or how he learned his trade as a painter. The first clear record is from 1633 when he registered as a member of the Alkmaar Guild of St Luke, which prompted a notable commission, later becoming Master of the Guild in 1634. Bartsius’ last signed painting is dated 1638 and there is no record of him after 1639 apart from a drawing (for which the attribution is questionable), signed and dated 1657. It is likely that he died in the late 1630s.

The masterpiece of the shortlived Bartsius can be seen at Colnaghi by appointment, and it will then be making its debut at TEFAF Maastricht next month (15-23 March 2013).

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