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:Rembrandt's Depiction of Joseph and Potiphar's
Analysis of Rembrandt's Depiction of "Joseph Accused By Potiphar's Wife" 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 her. 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 Joseph's life. 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 the bed. 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. Work Cited 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.


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