Conceived in 1886 and completed in 1887 to be displayed at that year's National Exhibition in Madrid, the painting Samson and Delilah was first shown to great acclaim in the artist's Roman studio. With a reduced palette yet an obvious concern for capturing the different nuances of objects and fabrics, the work depicts the precise moment in which Samson confesses the source of his superhuman strength to Delilah: his long locks of hair. However, the crisis that Spanish religious painting was experiencing during the 19th century led Echenagusía, nick-named "Echena", to introduce Orientalist features into this passage from the Old Testament, and the composition was therefore considered to have "scarce Biblical flavour". Consequently, it was not deemed worthy of any award, which prompted the anger of the artist, who decided not to send any further works to the national competitions.
The choice of setting—ancient Egypt—is no doubt the result of the same inspiration that in the mid-eighties had led several painters in Echena's circle, such as Anselmo Guinea, Juan Luna or Ramón Tusquets, to recreate scenes of that same period.
José Echenagusía had been established in Rome for a decade when he painted this work. He was a prominent figure in the Spanish colony there and was especially respected among young Basque artists—Guinea, Zuloaga and Díaz Olano for instance—whom he helped and advised throughout their first steps in the city. During the thirty-six years Echena spent in Rome, where he died in 1912, he produced an extensive oeuvre chiefly dedicated to historical, Biblical, Orientalist and genre themes, with scarce stylistic variations. Eager to obtain public recognition, he sent works to numerous exhibitions throughout Europe, not to mention the Basque Country. He visited Biscay and Gipuzkoa almost on a yearly basis and produced many decorative works for buildings such as the palaces housing the governments of both provinces. [M.L.G.]
Mikel Lertxundi Galiana. De Goya a Gauguin : el siglo XIX en el Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao. [Cat. exp.]. Bilbao : Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao = Bilboko Arte Ederren Museoa, 2008, pp. 314-316, n.º 60, ad vocem.
Mikel Lertxundi Galiana. Guía de Artistas Vascos. Bilbao : Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao = Bilboko Arte Ederren Museoa, 2008 (1ª ed. 2008; ed. inglés), pp. 29 y 30, n.º 11, ad vocem.
Mikel Lertxundi Galiana. Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao : guía. Bilbao : Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao = Bilboko Arte Ederren Museoa, 2011 (1ª ed. 2006; ed. inglés; ed. francés; ed. euskera), p. n.º 74, ad vocem.
Montserrat Fornells Angelats. Gipuzkoako Pintore Erromantikoak = Pintores Románticos Guipuzcoanos. Donostia-San Sebastián : Kutxa Fundazioa = Fundación Kutxa, 2013, pp. 49-50, 81, 122.