Shear genius

When it comes to painting hair, skin and fine clothes, Anthony Van Dyck is in a salon of his own, says Gillian Wolfe

Samson and Delilah by Anthony Van Dyck c1619-20 Oil on canvas, 151.4 x 230.5 cms Dulwich Picture Gallery

Van Dyck captures the dramatic high point in the story of Samson and Delilah from the book of Judges (XV1.19) in the Bible. Samson was famous for his great strength. In the story he "killed a lion with his bare hands". His enemies were the Philistines and among them was the beautiful Delilah (which means flirt) who was asked to lure him to betray the secret of his strength.

The picture depicts the moment when Delilah's cunning and intrigue is about to pay off as the Philistines stealthily creep forward to cut the fine head of hair and render the proud and strong hero a tragic, tormented weakling.

Van Dyck's painting derives from Rubens' treatment of the same subject in the National Gallery, London, although the composition here is reversed. Van Dyck creates a moment of high tension, shown in the expression on the faces of the onlookers and caught in the position of the hands, noticeably the single hand raised and silhouetted against the sky, as if in last-minute protest.

Van Dyck has managed a tour de force, brilliantly contrasting youth and beauty with wizened old age, handling a complex grouping of figures, space and atmosphere with a mastery of colour subtlety. His skill in portraying textural detail of satin, fur, velvet, skin and hair is unmatched.

The notion of an Old Master who is actually a teenager is an odd one. Van Dyck astonishingly performed this masterpiece before the age of 20. His was a precocious skill and like most apprentices, he began work in an artist's studio at the age of 10. In those days an artist's technical training was long and rigorous and involved considerable drudgery before mastery.

Van Dyck would have learned how to prepare a canvas, make size, glues and sticky binders to make pigment into paint, which was not available ready made. The pursuit of a varied palette of durable colours led artists to use strange ingredients including insects, plants, resins, lead and arsenic for pigments.

Oddly the picture has an unexplained 10cm addition across the top. Once cleaned it was decided to leave the later addition in an unconserved state. The difference in colour between the two sections is astounding and shows how dingy the painting had become over so many years. A visiting teacher at the time told her group that they were lucky to be the first ones to see the newly cleaned painting. One boy said he didn't think much of the job they had done. Why not, asked the puzzled teacher? "Just look at the state of Samson's feet," was the reply.

Practical activities

* Discussion

Pictures are unconnected with much of our sensory experience. We cannot hear any words being spoken, or smell the painted scene, touch the textures or taste the food or drink.

Yet, somehow, pictures communicate about all these, so how is the illusion achieved? Discuss the creation of atmosphere with light effects, the idea of fleshing out realistic looking figures on a flat surface, the message of symbol, body language and expression, the sensation of fabric via texture and the power of a good visual story.

* Making portraits

Three of these characters are shown three-quarter-face and Samson is side-faced. Ask a volunteer model to sit while children draw the full-front face. Slowly turn the model round for the different views to be seen and recorded. To carry this further, draw the model with head tilted back then forwards.

* Body language

Hands and body position carry a strong communicative role in pictures as they do here. As an exercise, ask children to communicate without words. They will manage this quite well and this highlights the importance of gesture. Then ask them to draw hands in message giving positions. Drawing hands is always a good exercise because your own hand can be the model.

* Texture and colour

Using a pencil try to capture the different texture of fur, hair and drapery. Collect examples of textured items for quick drawing warm-up exercises.

Using paint, older students might try the challenge of recreating the texture of rich fabrics or the folds of drapery. Attempting to paint a piece of white shiny material provides a real challenge in sophisticated colour mixing and highlighting.

Younger children can make a colour family painting. First, draw a simple scribble picture in crayon. Then paint each shape in a tone of only one or two colours. This will help colour mixing and illustrates colour harmony.

* Three dimensions

The canvas is quite flat and yet the people look three- dimensional. Look at the "modelling" on faces and arms; it is the use of light and shade, which gives the illusion of a solid.

For young children take simple shapes such as fruit to try out shading. Older children need to see a figure in part deep shade and part bright light to understand how light creates drama and solidity.

* Creative writing

Discuss the role of the strong hero and why much literature relies on the vanquishing of the bad guys. Explain how Samson gets his final revenge. When in prison his hair re-grows, his strength returns and even though he has been blinded, he still manages to pull the pillars of the building down to kill his enemies - and himself.

How can the dramatic moment be created in writing? Can children write about their own most dramatic moment?

* Science

This picture has lasted about 400 years so Van Dyck must have understood chemistry enough to know what substances to mix to make paint which lasts. Send for the Dulwich Picture Gallery recipe sheet, a guide to experimenting with pigment in the classroom.

Gillian Wolfe is head of education at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Her art book for children, Look, is published by Frances Lincoln on July 4. Tel: 020 7284 4009.

Anthony Van Dyck 1599-1641

Anthony Van Dyck was an assistant to Rubens, who called him "my best pupil", and court painter to the Prince and Princess of Orange in the Netherlands. In 1632 he was invited to England where he lived until his death. Within months of his arrival he was knighted and made principal painter to King Charles 1

For information about the free schools programme in Dulwich Picture Gallery and in the Sackler Art Studio Tel: 0208 299 8731 www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

For notes and an extensive gallery of online pictures: www.abcgallery.comVvandyckvandyck.html

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