For this depiction of Joseph spurning the advances of his Egyptian employer's wife, as recounted in the Book of Genesis, Guercino chose a three-quarter length format that presses the life-sized figures close to the spectator. He has filled the scene with the bed -- all rumpled sheets and opulent curtains. As the temptress reaches for the strong and handsome Joseph, he struggles vigorously to extricate himself. But she holds tight to the vivid blue cloak and sets Joseph spinning like a top out of his garment. In panic, he turns his imploring eyes heavenward, seeming to realize that even if he escapes with his virtue unscathed, he is helplessly ensnared in an evil plot; Potiphar's wife, bejeweled and confident, will later use the cloak to support her denunciation of Joseph as the aggressor.
With a delicate play of light on the seductress' profile, the artist shows the very moment of lust shading into treachery. If Guercino's narration is clear and eloquent, his presentation of the moral implications is more subtle: as this woman's beauty conceals her wickedness, so the visual lushness of Guercino's painting disguises a serious lesson about righteous conduct.
Commissioned by Aurelio Zaneletti [or Zanoletti] of Reggio in 1649. (Samuel Woodburn, 1820-1823). Charles Stewart, 3d marquess of Londonderry [1778-1854], London, by 1833; by descent to Alexander Charles Robert Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 9th marquess of Londonderry [b. 1937], Wynyard Park; purchased 1986 by NGA.
- The Age of Correggio and the Carracci: Emilian Painting of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, shown only at National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1986-1987, not in cat.
- Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, Il Guercino 1591-1666, Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna, 1991, no. 122, color repro.
- Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, Il Guercino 1591-1666, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 1991-1992, no. 65, color repro.
- Guercino: Master Painter of the Baroque, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1992, no. 47, color repro.
- Obras Maestras de la National Gallery of Art de Washington, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, 1996-1997, unnumbered catalogue, 64-65, color repro.
- Saints & Sinners: Caravaggio & the Baroque Image, McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, 1999, pl. 25.
- Seeing Double: Two Versions of Guercino's 'Joseph and Potiphar's Wife', Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville, 1999, fig. 6.
- Malvasia, Carlo Cesare. Felsina Pittrice. Vite de' Pittori Bolognesi con aggiunte correzioni e note inedite dell'autore di Giampietro Zanotti e di altri scrittori. 2 vols. Bologna, 1974: 267, 329-330 (originally published 1678).
- Mahon, Denis. Il Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 1591-1666: Catalogo critico dei dipinti). Exh. cat. Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio, Bologna, 1968: 188.
- Artioli, Nerio, and Elio Monducci, with Denis Mahon. Dipinti "reggiani" del Bonone e del Guercino. Exh. cat. Basilica della B.V. della Ghiara, Reggio Emilia, 1982: 108-110, cat. 20-21 (not exhibited).
- Mahon, Denis, in The Age of Correggio and the Carracci. Exh. cat. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Washington, D.C., 1986: 481, n. 2.
- Salerno, Luigi. I dipinti del Guercino. Rome, 1988: 332-333, no. 261-262, color repro.
- Mahon, Denis, and Nicholas Turner. The Drawings of Guercino in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle. Cambridge, 1989: 192, no. 657.
- Willette, Thomas. "Guercino's Paintings of 'Joseph with the Wife of Potiphar' and 'Amnon and Tamar,' and Research on Massimo Stanzione." Center 9: Research Reports and Record of Activities. Washington, D.C., 1989: 97-98.
- Mazza, Angelo. La collezione dei dipinti antichi della Cassa di Risparmio di Cesena. Bologna, 1991: 147.
- Russell, Francis. "Guercino in England." In Guercino in Britain. Paintings from British Collections. Exh. cat. National Gallery, London. The Burlington Magazine 133, suppl. London, 1991: 10, figs. 10-11.
- Stone, David. Guercino: catalogo completo dei dipinti. Florence, 1991: 255-257, no. 246, color repro.
- Stone, David. Guercino, Master Draftsman. Works from North American Collections. Exh. cat. Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bologna, 1991: 74-76, figs. 29b-c; 222.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 111, repro. (not in 1995 rev. ed.).
- De Grazia, Diane, and Eric Garberson, with Edgar Peters Bowron, Peter M. Lukehart, and Mitchell Merling. Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 162-170, color repro. 165.
- Seeing Double: Two Versions of Guercino's 'Joseph and Potiphar's Wife'. Exh. cat. Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville, 1999: fig. 6, color repro.
- Fahy, Everett, ed. The Wrightsman Pictures. New Haven, 2005: 142, under cat. 39, fig. 2.
The support is a coarsely and heavily woven twill fabric. The ground is dark and thick with large white particles; its fine pebbly surface shows through the thin paint layer, which was broadly and quickly applied. X-radiographs reveal slight changes in the sheets around the woman's legs.
The tacking margins have been opened and incorporated into the present picture surface. Scattered paint losses have been inpainted throughout. Extensive abrasion is located in the background drapery, in the blue coat, and in the flesh tones. The paint used for the background has altered, changing the contrast between background and foreground. Discolored varnish was removed and the painting was restored by Michael Swicklik in 1986.