This canvas was recorded in the Borghese collection from 1633, according to critics, made in the busy workshop of Giovanni Francesco Barbieri known as Guercino, contrary to what was recently claimed by Nicholas Turner who instead considers the work to be entirely by Guercino. The subject is taken from the Bible (Book of Judges, 14), which recounts how Samson, returning from a journey to meet his future bride, finds the carcass of a lion on the street, one he had previously killed, in the meantime colonised by a swarm of bees. He takes the honeycomb, deciding to share it with his parents, but without telling them anything about its provenance.
19th-century frame with four corner palmettes (125.6 x 171 x 8.7 cm)
Rome, Borghese Collection, ca. 1633 (Inv. ca. 1633, p. 18, no. 196, published by Corradini 1998 e dated by Pierguidi 2014); Inv. 1693, room VII, no. 389; Inventario Fidecommissario, 1833, p. 23; purchased by Italian state, 1902.
This painting is documented in the Borghese Collection for the first time in 1633. It was described in an inventory of Cardinal Scipione’s gallery of paintings, which was found by Sandro Corradini in 1998 and dated to roughly 1633 by Stefano Pierguidi (2014). In 1650, Iacomo Manilli attributed the work to Guercino, although he confused Samson with Solomon. Later, Adolfo Venturi (1893) mistakenly identified the canvas, confusing it with another of a similar subject cited in 1658 in the account book for the painter. For her part, Paola della Pergola (1955) deemed the work in question a well-executed replica from around the 1620s, taking into consideration both the youthful style of the painting and the fact that there is no trace of it in the expense record that was kept from 1629: she therefore excluded the possibility that the work could be a replica of the one cited in 1658 or that it could have been painted after 1629.
In 1968, Sir Denis Mahon concurred with Della Pergola, confirming that the version of Samson Offering His Parents a Honeycomb held at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, was certainly made by Guercino, executed for one the members of the Barberini family. By contrast, he believed, the Borghese painting came from Guercino’s workshop, with no recognisable traces of the hand of the master; it was rather a ‘deader and duller’ work compared to the one in Virginia.
Recently, however, Nicholas Turner (2017) has completely dissented from Mahon’s view, fully attributing the canvas to Guercino in his monograph on the artist. Here he wrote that the rapid, hurried execution of some details and the quality of the materials used should be interpreted in reference to the nature of the work, which was essentially conceived as a ‘great sketch’ for the painting in the Chrysler Museum.
The subject of the painting is taken from an Old Testament episode (Judges 14). Samson returns from a journey which he made to meet his future wife. On the road he finds the carcass of a lion, which he killed on the way out; in the meantime, the carcass has been colonised by a swarm of bees. He takes the honeycomb and decides to share it with his parents, without telling them where it came from. The scene depicts the precise moment in which Samson gives half of the honeycomb to the elderly couple. No bees are represented in this version of the work; the Samson in Virginia, by contrast, shows three bees flying near the wall at the top of the scene: their formation clearly alludes to the Barberini coat of arms.
A painting with the same subject (San Francisco, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum), together with a replica of that work (Rome, private collection), was published by Mahon in 1968 (pp. 211-212, no. 101).