Looking at Drawings: An Introduction (3)

The first part of this essay includes an introduction and a section on drawings for study. The second part is the beginning of the discussion of drawings as compositional studies for paintings. This third part continues the discussion of drawings as studies for paintings.

Samson and Delilah, ca. 1609-1611

Wielding the jawbone of an ass, Samson slew a thousand Philistines. The survivors, set on vengeance, offered to pay Delilah handsomely to discover the source of Samson’s great strength, so they could defeat him. Samson eventually admitted to Delilah that his strength came from never having cut his hair.

And she made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him. (Judges 19)

The Philistines captured Samson, gouged out his eyes, and threw him in prison.

Rubens sketched Delilah sitting at the left, with Samson asleep in her lap. An old woman holds a candle as a man cuts off Samson’s hair. At the right, a few quick lines suggest Philistines lurking in the doorway.

Rubens, sketch for Samson and Delilah, ca. 1609-1611.

In this sketch, Rubens has worked out main lines of the composition. Instead of making it centered and balanced, he’s created a sort of vortex toward the left, formed by the curving lines of Delilah’s arms, the folds of her clothing, Samson’s arm and back, and the folds of his robe.

With color added, there’s a dramatic shift in emphasis. The lightness of the fleshtones draws attention to Delilah’s face and bare breast and to Samson’s face and naked back. Also highlighted: the hand and foreshortened face of the man wielding the scissors, and the faces of the soldiers peering through the doorway.

Rubens, Samson and Delilah, ca. 1609-11. London, National Gallery. Image: Wikipedia

Rubens was not just a master of line, but of color and texture. Aside from the flesh tones, he’s used the mass of red satin and the luxurious texture of the rug to yank our attention to Samson and Delilah – and the glint of polished armor to remind us that the Philistines are waiting to attack.

I love to study sketches … but I wouldn’t want to miss the finished painting!

The Garden of Love, ca. 1632

The Garden of Love is a celebration of Rubens’s marriage to Helena Fourment in 1630. Below is his highly finished two-part sketch for the painting. Rubens (far left of the first half) leads his bride to an elegant al fresco gathering.

Rubens, Garden of Love, sketch for left side, ca. 1633-1635. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image: MetMuseum.com
Rubens, Garden of Love, sketch for right side, ca. 1633-1635. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image: MetMuseum.org

You might want to open two browser windows so you can see the sketches and the paintings for this next bit.

Rubens, Garden of Love, ca. 1633-1635. Madrid, Prado. Image: Wikipedia

The finished oil painting is a whopping 6 1/2 x 9 1/2 feet. Rubens has modified the sketches considerably. He shows more architecture, even some sky, behind the figures, making them seem to be out in the open air. He’s changed the architecture to look like the portico on his own home, the Rubenshuis. (The Rubenshuis came up in last Sunday’s art recommendations: to be added to the list, email at DuranteDianne@gmail.com.) At the upper left, he removed a large tree and added a trio of cupids. He added a fountain with the Three Graces, center top. He moved most of the living figures toward the front.  At the far right, he switched the position of the woman in blue with a couple in white and red. The fact that the couple can walk “on stage” suggests open space all around. And he made one seated woman look directly at Rubens and Helena. (Don’t stare, y’all, she’s shy!)

Rubens also added symbolism that doesn’t appear in the sketches.

  • Near the top are a pair of doves, symbolizing love.
  • Near the doves is a trio of cupids, one holding a yoke. (“Conjugal” love: get it?)
  • The dog added toward the lower right represents loyalty and faithfulness.
  • The Three Graces bring an element of, well, grace.
  • The “nursing Venus” fountain added at the upper right (weird concept!) represents fertility and child-bearing.
  • The peacock all the way at the right (perched on the fountain’s edge) is the symbol of Juno, wife of Jupiter and goddess of marriage.

It’s remarkable that Rubens packed this much symbolism into the painting without turning it into an academic exercise: the focus remains on the human beings in the foreground, mostly because he concentrates color and texture there.

In short: this is recognizably the same idea as the two sketches, but it’s far more developed. Seeing the earlier version makes me appreciate the finished work more.

Next up: Finished portrait drawings.


  • More Samson and Delilah: a Renaissance woodcut, ca. 1460-65 (sixty years before Rubens’s painting); Guercino’s Samson and Delilah, 1654 (twenty years after Rubens’s work). Better or worse? Why?
  • The Metropolitan Museum has a wonderful self-portrait of Rubens with Helena and their son, painted ca. 1635 – soon after The Garden of Love.
  • Quick: which pop song features the woman who betrayed Samson? If you remember hearing it when it came out (1968), welcome to the oldies’ club!
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com) receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.
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