After learning the fundamentals of drawing and painting in his native Leiden, Rembrandt van Rijn went to Amsterdam in 1624 to study for six months with Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), a famous history painter. Upon completion of his training Rembrandt returned to Leiden. Around 1632 he moved to Amsterdam, quickly establishing himself as the town’s leading artist, specializing in history paintings and portraiture. He received many commissions and attracted a number of students who came to learn his method of painting.
In the seventeenth century, history painting—the depiction of biblical, mythological, and allegorical scenes—was considered the pinnacle of artistic expression. Because such paintings required great imagination and dealt with fundamental moral and ethical issues, theorists ranked history painting before other subjects such as landscape, portraiture, and still life.
The story of Joseph fascinated Rembrandt, who made numerous drawings, prints, and paintings of this Old Testament figure. This particular work, however, was executed by one of Rembrandt’s workshop assistants after the master himself had determined the subject matter and composition. In this scene from the book of Genesis, chapter 39, Potiphar's wife, having failed to seduce Joseph, falsely accuses him of trying to violate her. Speaking to Potiphar, the wife points to the red robe Joseph left behind when he ran from her clutches, wickedly using the presence of the garment as evidence to support her accusation. In the biblical account, Joseph was not present, but the artist added poignancy to his visualization of the story by inserting Joseph on the far side of the bed. Rembrandt’s preoccupation with the theme of false accusation probably stemmed from the drawn-out lawsuit against him by Geertje Dirckx, a former companion, who claimed that he had promised to marry her.
This painting depicts an episode in the life of Joseph described in the Book of Genesis, chapter 39. Joseph, who had been sold to Potiphar, an officer of the pharaoh, came to be trusted and honored in Potiphar’s household. He was, however, falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife, Iempsar, of trying to violate her, after her attempts at seduction had failed. When he fled from her, she held on to his robe and eventually used it as evidence against him. In this painting Iempsar recounts her tale to Potiphar as she gestures toward Joseph’s red robe draped over the bedpost. While Potiphar listens intently to the story, Joseph, dressed in a long brown tunic and with the keys denoting his household responsibilities hanging from his belt, stands serenely on the far side of the bed.
The story of Joseph must have fascinated Rembrandt, for he devoted a large number of drawings, prints, and paintings to the life of this Old Testament figure. Although his primary source of inspiration was undoubtedly the Bible, he also drew upon other literary traditions to amplify his understanding of the biblical text. Tümpel has argued that, in particular, Flavius Josephus’ Of the Antiquities of the Jews was extremely important for Rembrandt’s interpretations of Old Testament scenes.
Christian Tümpel in H. Vekeman and J. Müller Hofstede, eds., Wort und Bild in der niederländischen Kunst und Literatur des 16. u. 17. Jahrhunderts (Erfstadt, 1984), 173–204, and reissued in an abbreviated form in Christian Tümpel and Jacqueline Boonen, Het Oude Testament in de schilderkunst van de Gouden Eeuw (Zwolle, Amsterdam, and Jerusalem, 1991), 194–206. Flavius Josephus, who was born in Jerusalem shortly after Christ’s death, based his text not only on the Old Testament but also on Jewish legends and antique writers. His work was translated into many languages and widely distributed.
Walter L. Strauss and Marjon van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents (New York, 1979), 379, no. 284: “Een hoogduijtsche Flavio Fevus gestoffeert met figueren van Tobias Timmerman” (a ‘Flavius Josephus’ in High German profusely illustrated by Tobias Stimmer).
Flavius Josephus, Of the Antiquities of the Jews, book 2, chapter 4, section 5, in The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, trans. William Whiston, 4 vols. (London, 1755), 1:82–83.
In one important respect the confrontation depicted in this painting varies from both Josephus’ account and the biblical text: all three protagonists are present at the time of the accusation. In neither account is Joseph’s presence mentioned. Rembrandt often took such liberties with biblical texts to enhance the emotional poignancy of the scene.
In his The Visitation, 1640 (Detroit Institute of Arts, inv. no. 27.200), for example, Rembrandt depicted the aged Zacharias descending the stairs to greet Mary, although Elizabeth’s husband is not mentioned in this biblical episode.
It is difficult to determine whether Rembrandt invented this compositional concept purely from his own imagination or derived it from a pictorial or theoretical source. As was first mentioned by Bauch, Jan Pynas (c. 1581–1631) included Joseph in his 1629 depiction of the same scene, but the compositional connections are not strong.
Kurt Bauch, Der frühe Rembrandt und seine Zeit: Studien zur geschichtlichten Bedeutung seines Frühstils (Berlin, 1960), 258, note 96. Pynas’ painting, which is in the Alfred Bader Collection, now at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario, is also mentioned in this context by Christian Tümpel, “Religious History Painting,” in Albert Blankert et al., Gods, Saints and Heroes: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt (Washington, 1980), 51, fig. 6.
Joost van den Vondel, Joseph in Egypten, act. 5, verse 1348: “daer komt die fraeie gast,” as quoted in Hans Kauffmann, “Anmerkungen zu Rembrandts Potipharbildern,” in Otto von Simson and Jan Kelch, eds., Neue Beiträge zur Rembrandt-Forschung (Berlin, 1973), 52. The connection between this painting and Vondel’s play appears to have first been made by Rudolf Wustmann, “Die Joseph-geschichte bei Vondel und Rembrandt,” Kunstchronik 18 (November 23, 1906): 81–84.
Gary Schwartz, Rembrandt: zijn leven, zijn schilderijen (Maarssen, 1984), 274–275. Schwartz identifies the actors as Adriana van den Bergh (Iempsar), her husband, Gillis Nooseman (Potiphar), and Cornelis Laurensz Krook (Joseph).
Hans Kauffmann, “Anmerkungen zu Rembrandts Potipharbildern,” in Otto von Simson and Jan Kelch, eds., Neue Beiträge zur Rembrandt-Forschung (Berlin, 1973), 53–57.
There seems good reason, however, to believe that the choice of subject matter was not entirely the result of external influences. The decision to paint in 1655 this image of false accusation speaks too closely to Rembrandt’s personal circumstances to be entirely coincidental. Rembrandt may have been drawn to the subject because he was beset at this time by accusations from a woman scorned, his former companion Geertje Dirckx. In 1649 she sued Rembrandt for breach of promise, a suit that was followed by years of litigation.
Geertje Dirckx was released from the Gouda house of correction on May 31, 1655, after having spent five years confined in the “Spinhuis.” Rembrandt purportedly tried to prevent her release and wanted to keep her there for another eleven years. For documents relating to this matter see Walter L. Strauss and Marjon van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents (New York, 1979), 327, doc. 1655/2; 340, doc. 1656/5.
Complicating any assessment of this work, however, is the existence of a comparable Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife painting in Berlin that is also signed Rembrandt and dated 1655
The date inscribed on Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife was a matter of great dispute in the early literature on the painting. Waagen in 1864 read the date of the Washington painting (when it was in the Hermitage) as 1657.
Gustav Friedrich Waagen, Die Gemäldesammlung in der kaiserlichen Ermitage zu St. Petersburg nebst Bemerkungen über andere dortige Kunstsammlungen (Munich, 1864), 179, no. 794. In this dating he follows Baron B. de Köhne, Ermitage Impérial, Catalogue de la Galerie des Tableaux (Saint Petersburg, 1863), no. 794.
Wilhelm von Bode, Studien zur Geschichte der holländischen Malerei (Braunschweig, 1883), 508, 599, no. 319; Wilhelm von Bode assisted by Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, The Complete Work of Rembrandt, trans. Florence Simmonds, 8 vols. (Paris, 1897–1906), 6:34, no. 401.
Émile Michel, Rembrandt: Sa vie, son oeuvre et son temps, 2 vols. (New York, 1893; English trans., 1894), 2:80; Andrei Ivanovich Somof, Ermitage Impérial. Catalogue de la Galerie des Tableaux, 2 vols. (Saint Petersburg, 1901), 2:308, no. 794. “Il se peut, du reste, que ce trait soit simplement l’effet du hasard, et qu’il soit produit bien plus tard, lors du nettoyage ou du rentoilage du tableau.” Abraham Bredius, Rembrandt, Schilderijen (Vienna, 1935), no. 523, dated the painting 1655 without further comment.
The subtle yet profound differences in concept in the Washington and Berlin paintings were, as a consequence of this confusion about the date, explained in relation to Rembrandt’s chronological evolution. As late as the 1970s, for example, Kauffmann argued that the earlier double-dating hypothesis should not be ignored in considering which of these two paintings came first. He felt that it would have been unlikely for Rembrandt to have painted the emotionally charged Berlin version and then to have proceeded to the less dramatic, and to his mind, less successful Washington version.
Hans Kauffmann, “Anmerkungen zu Rembrandts Potipharbildern,” in Otto von Simson and Jan Kelch, eds., Neue Beiträge zur Rembrandt-Forschung (Berlin, 1973), 50–51.
Opinions about the relative success of the two compositions that Kauffmann raised had concerned art historians ever since the late nineteenth century. Most argued that the Berlin version, in Michel’s words, was “not only more dramatic in composition . . . , [but] more brilliant in colour, and in better condition” than the Hermitage [Washington] example.
Émile Michel, Rembrandt: Sa vie, son oeuvre et son temps, 2 vols. (New York, 1893; English trans., 1894), 2:80.
Wilhelm von Bode assisted by Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, The Complete Work of Rembrandt, trans. Florence Simmonds, 8 vols. (Paris, 1897–1906), 6:3.
Jakob Rosenberg, Rembrandt, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), 1:137.
From M. Knoedler & Co., letter, March 10, 1936, in NGA curatorial files. Schmidt-Degener’s reactions seem to have been inspired by a recent restoration of the painting. Nothing is known about the restoration other than that the painting was relined in Amsterdam in 1935 by C. M. Jenner (an inscription in Dutch indicating this information is on the inside of the stretcher).
Otto Benesch, “The Rembrandt Paintings in the National Gallery of Art,” Art Quarterly 6 (Winter 1943):27. Benesch’s opinion about the chronological precedence of the Washington version was influenced by the relationship he saw between this painting and a drawing in the Graphische Sammlung, Munich (inv. 1448). He felt that the drawing was a preparatory study for this work. See Otto Benesch, The Drawings of Rembrandt: A Critical and Chronological Catalogue, 6 vols. (London, 1954–1957), 5:277, no. 958. The drawing, however, belongs to a notorious group of forgeries of Rembrandt drawings in Munich and cannot be considered within this context. See Jakob Rosenberg, review of Otto Benesch, The Drawings of Rembrandt: A Critical and Chronological Catalogue, 6 vols. (London, 1954–1957), Art Bulletin 41 (March 1959): 108–119.
Since the 1960s, however, the general consensus has been not only that the Berlin version is superior but also that the Washington painting is a workshop replica. This opinion was first expressed in 1966 when Bauch proposed that the comparatively muted depiction of the scene in the Washington painting was the creation of a good student who was following the Berlin example. He argued as well that Rembrandt subsequently reworked the painting and then signed it.
Kurt Bauch, Rembrandt Gemälde (Berlin, 1966), no. 33.
Abraham Bredius, Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of the Paintings, revised by Horst Gerson (London, 1969), 601, no. 523.
Christian Tümpel in Wort und Bild in der niederländischen Kunst und Literatur des 16. u. 17. Jahrhunderts, ed. H. Vekeman and J. Müller Hofstede (Erfstadt, 1984), 189; Christian Tümpel, Rembrandt, trans. Jacques and Jean Duvernet, Léon Karlson, and Patrick Grilli (Paris, 1986), 419–420, no. A2; and Christian Tümpel in Christian Tümpel and Jacqueline Boonen, Het Oude Testament in de schilderkunst van de Gouden Eeuw (Zwolle, Amsterdam, and Jerusalem, 1991), 200.
Although the conservation treatment of the painting in 1979–1980 did not resolve issues of chronology and date, the removal of several layers of pigmented varnish with pronounced
The network of cracks in the paint and ground. Also sometimes referred to crackle pattern.
The “curious ‘
An alteration made by the artist to an area that was already painted.
The treatment confirmed that the surface had suffered from numerous small losses and general
A gradual loss of material on the surface. It can be caused by rubbing, wearing, or scraping against itself or another material. It may be a deteriorative process that occurs over time as a result of weathering or handling or it may be due to a deliberate attempt to smooth the material.
The information comes from an inscription on the back of the painting.
A photographic or digital image analysis method that visually records an object's ability to absorb or transmit x-rays. The differential absorption pattern is useful for examining an object's internal structure as well as for comparing the variation in pigment types.
It cannot be determined whether further alterations were made to the size of the original support.
Technical examinations of the available ground layers and paint provide no evidence to suggest that these strips were later additions, yet it is most unlikely that the composition was originally conceived on a support with this unusual configuration. The decision thus must have been made during the course of execution that the composition should be enlarged in the foreground and to the left of Joseph. Perhaps it was thought that the floor did not recede properly under the feet of Potiphar’s wife and that Joseph appeared too cramped on the far side of the bed. Whatever the reasons for the additions, the result is that the figures are set back more into space and the dim half-lights of the bedchamber take on a greater atmospheric role in the presentation of the drama. They seem, in fact, to reinforce the subtle, understated interpretation of the accusation by Potiphar’s wife that is depicted.
Whether or not the change in the shape of the composition provides evidence about the chronological relationship of the Washington and Berlin versions is difficult to determine. The Washington painting, before the strips were added to the left side and the bottom, measured approximately 98.8 x 90.6 cm, whereas the Berlin canvas measures 113.5 x 90 cm. Thus the widths of the two paintings appear to have been originally the same although the vertical dimensions differ.
The figures in the Washington painting are closer to the top edge than they are in the Berlin version. The possibility that the Washington painting has been trimmed along that edge should not be excluded.
The step, however, makes no logical sense in that it runs under the bed; thus the bedposts at the foot of the bed rest on a lower level than do those at the head of the bed. This illogical arrangement is one reason for doubting the attribution of the Berlin version of this composition to Rembrandt (see also note 29).
For an assessment of the different character of the interpretations of the story in these two paintings see Mieke Bal, Reading "Rembrandt": Beyond the Word-Image Opposition (Cambridge and New York, 1991), 105–108.
Should the two paintings have been created at more or less the same time, one must wonder whether it would have been likely for Rembrandt to have executed both works. He may have done so to demonstrate how, with essentially the same composition, one could render quite disparate representations of the scene. More likely, however, is that two different artists painted these works. Indeed, close comparisons of the painting techniques in these works demonstrate distinct approaches to modeling. An excellent point of comparison is the wife’s left hand, which in the Washington version is softly modeled with extended strokes of the brush, while in the Berlin version it is more boldly formed with a rougher, more broken technique. Similar comparisons can be made in the modeling of her face and robes.
Comparisons indicate that a more adept hand executed the Berlin version. With a close examination of technique in the Washington painting comes an awareness that the anatomical forms, the hand and eyes, for example, and the folds in the robes are, in fact, not modeled with a convincing sense of three-dimensional form.
I would like to thank Ernst van de Wetering for sharing with me his observations about these areas when he examined the painting in 1989, contained in an e-mail correspondence dated December 15, 2009.
The overly dramatic gesture of Joseph as he looks heavenward is quite uncharacteristic for Rembrandt in the mid-1650s. It is a gesture, however, that does appear in Willem Drost’s drawing of The Lament for Abel (see Werner Sumowski, Drawings of the Rembrandt School, ed. and trans. Walter L. Strauss, 10 vols. [New York, 1979–1992], 3:1204, no. 553x, repro.). This coincidence, as well as the relatively bold brushwork with thick impastos, which relates to Drost’s known works, suggests that he may have been responsible for the Berlin version. Ernst van de Wetering, on the other hand (Ernst van de Wetering, “'Principaelen' and Satellites,” in Lene Bøgh Rønberg and Eva de la Fuente Pedersen, Rembrandt?: The Master and His Workshop [Copenhagen, 2006], 120), has argued that the Berlin painting is primarily by Rembrandt but that a student executed the figure of Joseph.
For an analysis of Van Renesse’s style and biographical information on the artist, see the entry on
Ernst van de Wetering, “'Principaelen' and Satellites,” in Lene Bøgh Rønberg and Eva de la Fuente Pedersen, Rembrandt?: The Master and His Workshop (Copenhagen, 2006), 120.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
lower right: Rembrandt. f.1655.
Gerard Hoet, Jr. [d.1760], The Hague; (his sale, by Arnoldus Franken, The Hague, 25-26 August 1760, no. 44). Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky [1710-1775], Berlin; acquired in 1763 by Catherine II, empress of Russia [1729-1796], Saint Petersburg; Imperial Hermitage Gallery, Saint Petersburg; sold January 1931, as a painting by Rembrandt, through (Matthiesen Gallery, Berlin, P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London, and M. Knoedler & Co., New York) to Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington; deeded 1 May 1937 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.
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The original fabric support, consisting of a large piece (98.8 x 90.6 cm) with strips (6 cm wide) sewn onto the left and bottom edges, was transferred by E. Sivers in Saint Petersburg in 1854 to fabric with an open-weave, gauzelike interleaf. In 1935 the transfer fabric was removed and the painting relined, with the interleaf retained. Sanding of the back of the original fabric during transfer removed the weave and cusping patterns and may have removed an original ground layer, if a double ground had been employed. Only a single original layer is evident, a tan ground present on the main fabric and edge strips, situated above a white ground that was presumably added during transfer. A black underlayer was found beneath the figures of Joseph and the wife, and the tan ground was employed as a mid-tone in the wife’s hair.
Paint was applied in complex, thin layers of medium-rich paint, creating a heavily textured surface enriched with transparent glazes. The X-radiographs and examination with infrared reflectography at 1.1 – 1.4 microns  reveal changes, often visible as pentimenti, above Potiphar’s proper right wrist, in the red cape, which was extended to the right, and in the wife’s proper right sleeve and index finger. Originally, her index finger was not extended. Abrasion in the background reveals remnants of a canopy, visible with infrared reflectography, that initially was between Joseph and Potiphar.
Moderate abrasion is found in the background and in the dress of Potiphar’s wife, along with moderate-sized losses, particularly in Potiphar and the background. Losses exist on all edges and along the seams of the narrow edge strips, where the paint application is original and consistent with the handling in the larger fabric piece. The painting was treated in 1979 to remove discolored varnish and retouching.
 The information comes from an inscription on a piece of linen, which was attached to the back of the stretcher.
 Nothing is known about this treatment other than that the painting was relined in Amsterdam in 1935 by C. M. Jenner (an inscription in Dutch indicating this information is on the inside of the stretcher).
 The ground, consisting of iron oxides, Van Dyck brown, and quartz, is apparently the same on both the main fabric and the edge strips. The ground and paint were analyzed by the NGA Scientific Research department using cross-sections and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (see reports dated April 17, 1979; April 18, 1979; August 6, 1979; and November 26, 1979, in NGA Conservation department files). The ground was further analyzed by Karin Groen using cross-sections (see Karin Groen, "Grounds in Rembrandt’s Workshop and in Paintings by his Contemporaries," in Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. 4, Self-Portraits, ed. Ernst van de Wetering [Dordrecht, 2005], 666–667).
 Infrared reflectography was performed with a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera fitted with a J astronomy filter.
Related IconClass Terms
- postures and gestures of hands and fingers
- conservation of a work of art
- artist +Andrea Mantegna
- artist working from live model
- Judgment of Conduct
- historical person +Titus van Rijn
- Joseph accused by Potiphar's wife