:Rembrandt's Depiction of Joseph and Potiphar's Wife
Analysis of Rembrandt's Depiction of "Joseph Accused By
The story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife is told in the
first book of the Bible, Genesis, chapter 39. Joseph was
sold into slavery by his brothers and bought by Potiphar, a
high ranking official in the Pharaoh's service. "The Lord
was with Joseph," and gave him success in everything he
did. This pleased Potiphar and before long Joseph was given
the highest position in the household, and left in charge
when Potiphar was away. Now Potiphar's wife found Joseph to
be very good looking and had approached him several times
saying "come to bed with me;" and Joseph being a man of God
would not sin against his master or the Lord, so he refused
Potiphar's wife did not want to accept Joseph's refusal and
she devised a plan that would ruin Joseph. One day when all
the servants were gone, Joseph entered the house and
Potiphar's wife approached him and while holding on to his
cloak said "come to bed with me". Joseph refused and left
the house leaving his cloak behind. Potiphar' wife screamed
for help saying that Joseph had attacked her and tried to
sleep with her. When her husband came home, she told him
the same false story. Potiphar was very angry at Joseph and
had him locked up in Pharaoh's prison. "But while Joseph
was in the prison, the Lord was with him." This is the
theme that Rembrandt chose for his representational
painting. The content of the painting reveals Rembrandt's
interpretation of the story
Rembrandt Van Ryn chose this particular story as the
subject of his narrative painting completed in 1655, under
the title of "Joseph Accused By Potiphar's Wife". The
artist's use of light and darkness was both purposeful and
a technique well known at this time. The overall painting
appears to be quite dark and the only exceptions are the
bed and Potiphar's wife, both of which are flooded in light
almost as if a spotlight were thrown on her and the bed.
Some light shines on Joseph's face and from behind him like
a halo around his body, but this light is very dim.
Potiphar in great contrast to his wife is almost in
complete darkness. Rembrandt liked strong contrasts of
light and dark and used them in his paintings all his life,
letting darkness hide unnecessary details while using light
to bring figures and objects out from the shadows. " The
high contrast of light against dark changed an ordinary
scene into a dramatic one ... the Italian word for this use
of light and dark [is] chiaroscuro " (Muhlberger 9).
Rembrandt must have believed that too much detail in the
room would have obscured the primary players of this scene.
He uses light to brightly illuminate the most important
person in this painting, Potiphar's wife. In descending
order of importance, Rembrandt places a glow around Joseph
and casts Potiphar in almost total darkness. The contrast
of light and dark also highlights the turning point in
Rembrandt also employs a technique which appears to show
infinite space. In the painting, the walls appear to go on
indefinitely; there are no boundaries to the room. In
addition the artist chose not to add any details to the
walls or floor. According to Richard Muhlberger, "Rembrandt
learned to lavish attention on small parts of a painting,
leaving the rest without much detail. He knew that details
look more impressive surrounded by areas that are plain;
they are harder to notice when they cover the entire
surface of a painting" (16). Obviously in this painting, "
Joseph Accused by Potiphar's Wife", Rembrandt's purpose in
using the design element of infinite space is to attract
the audience to the characters in this story and not so
much their surroundings, with the exception, perhaps, of
Rembrandt's use of color contributed to the characters'
portrayal/depiction. Color, the character of a surface
resulting from the response of vision to the wavelength of
light reflected from that surface, influences people's
emotions in various ways. The painting " Joseph Being
Accused by Potiphar's Wife", the dreary, somber colors
leave the viewer feeling depressed. After understanding the
theme of the painting, it is understandable why Rembrandt
used dark colors. Joseph is being accused by his master's
wife, the master he has served with all of his ability, of
a crime he has not committed, not even in his mind, despite
the many opportunities the woman has given him. For
Rembrandt to successfully depict Joseph's situation, he
"had to ... know the stories he painted and all the
characters in them" (Schwartz 15). Instead of focusing on
the luxurious setting of an Egyptian official's bedroom,
Rembrandt chose to underscore the seriousness of Joseph's
situation through color.
Another important element of a painting is the focal point.
In order to heighten the importance of Potiphar's wife's
action, her fingers pointing to the robe, Rembrandt placed
her fingertips in the middle of the canvas (Munz 10).
Another important placement involves the bed. It is
receives the "limelight" by also being placed in the middle
of the painting. It dominates the composition while other
areas are subordinate to it. Rembrandt's focal points work
because of the strong contrast between light and dark and
because of placement of the characters in this story.
Even without knowing the underlying story of the painting,
one can understand the theme by carefully the elements;
light, color, details and focal points. There is a large
room partly lit. In the center is a bed with snow white
sheets fitted perfectly, as if a maid had just finished
dressing it. To the side of the bed, seated in an equally
large chair, is a most troubled-looking woman. She is
adorned with a lavish, bright-colored gown, and wears
decorative jewelry, with her hair luxuriously woven. She
points with her right hand an accusing finger at a dark
maroon cloak draped on one of the bed posts. Her other hand
nurses a torn lapel of an under garment, suggesting she has
been in some manner violated. She looks, with a creased
forehead, at a tall, dark figure to the her left, whom for
the lack of lighting shimmers in an elegant uniform, his
head donning a turban. He leans on the back of her chair,
his hand closed, but his arm pointing in the same direction
as the cloak. His other arm is on his hip directly above a
sheathed sword. His overall stature and facial expression
appears quizzical, as he ponders over the serious
situation. The situation of course concerns the accusation
his wife makes of the owner of the cloak. The lonely figure
in the corner dressed in the drab olive green tunic stands
silently listening to the woman, obviously the accused
owner of this cloak. His maroon red sash with the keys
reveals his importance to the household.
Rembrandt clearly brought this "scene to life
convincingly" (Schwartz 15). For him to have accomplished
this feat, he "had to give each figure an appropriate
expression, pose, and costume" (Schwartz 15). All this
Rembrandt has done, leaving us with a tragic moment in
biblical history captured beautifully in this awesome
painting of Joseph accused by Potiphar's wife.
Barker, Kenneth. The Holy Bible, New International Version.
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House,1995.
Muhlberger, Richard. What Makes A Rembrandt A Rembrandt?
New York: Viking, 1993.
Munz, Ludwig. Rembrandt. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1984
Schwartz, Gary. First Impressiaons:Rembrandt. New York:
Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1992.