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. Rembrandt owned an expensive German edition of Flavius Josephus, which is listed in the 1656 inventory of his possessions, the year after the execution of this painting. Tümpel sees the pronounced focus on the bed in Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife as a direct response on Rembrandt’s part to the emphasis placed on the bed in Josephus’ account of this scene. In the text found in Of the Antiquities of the Jews, Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph with the following words: “O husband, said she, mayst thou not live a day longer, if thou dost not punish the wicked slave, who has desired to defile thy bed.”
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. Here the setting has been carefully conceived to reinforce the essential drama of the accusation. Potiphar’s wife is the main protagonist, for it is around her accusation that the drama revolves. Strongly lit and centrally placed, she gestures across the white sheets of the bed to Joseph’s red robe as she turns toward her husband to recount her story. At the same time she brings her left hand to her chest, holding up her chemise in a gesture that implies at once innocence and modesty. On the far side of the expansive bed, Joseph appears isolated and vulnerable as he stares toward the red robe and involuntarily raises his hand in protest to Iempsar’s accusation. Potiphar, dressed in a turban and an oriental costume, leans toward Iempsar, resting his hand on the back of her chair and listening attentively. While he has directed his gaze at Joseph’s robe, his relaxed pose makes it apparent that he has not yet fully grasped the import of her story.
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. Pynas does not include the bed and depicts a member of Potiphar’s household holding Joseph. A more probable source of inspiration is Joost van den Vondel’s play Joseph in Egypten, first performed in 1639/1640, in which all three protagonists appear on the stage at the time of Iempsar’s accusation. Schwartz, who has also emphasized this connection with Vondel’s play, has further noted that the production held in 1655 was a particular success, with a woman in the role of Iempsar. Even though Joseph appears onstage at the end of Iempsar’s accusation rather than at the beginning, as would seem to be the case in the painting, the theatrical character of the image suggests that the play may have been an important source of inspiration for this work. The theme of false accusation also arises in Andrea Mantegna’s drawing Calumny of Apelles, which Rembrandt owned and copied at about this time.
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.
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 [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Rembrandt van Rijn, Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, 1655, oil on canvas, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie. Photo: bpk, Berlin / Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin / Jörg P. Anders / Art Resource, NY. In this version the three protagonists are placed in relatively the same position, although the drama here is expressed at a higher pitch. Joseph responds vigorously to Iempsar’s accusation by looking upward and raising his left hand near his head. Iempsar accuses Joseph directly rather than indirectly through the medium of the discarded robe. As though to emphasize her disdain for Joseph she steps on the robe as it lies strewn over a step on the floor. Her body language is more active than in the Washington version: she turns at an angle in her chair, she has her legs crossed, and her facial expression seems quite agitated. Whereas the Iempsar of the Washington painting, dressed in jewelry and an ermine-lined orange robe, appears composed, the Iempsar in the Berlin version seems more disheveled: she wears no jewelry, and the richly brocaded surface of her robe is broken by numerous folds. Finally, the surface of the Berlin version is further enlivened by the elaborate gilded bedpost near Joseph.
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. The Hermitage catalog of 1870, however, interpreted the date as reading 1654, which would mean that this version predated the one presently in Berlin. Bode in 1883 and again in 1901 also agreed that the Hermitage version was originally dated 1654, but he believed that Rembrandt changed the “4” to a “5” when he reworked the painting the following year. Despite the opinions of Michel and later Somof, in his 1901 catalog of the Hermitage paintings, that the date should read 1655 and that the so-called 4 was a misreading due to accidental effects on the surface, Bode’s suggestion continued to be accepted by most scholars until Bredius’ 1935 catalog of Rembrandt paintings.
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.
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. Bode, who considered the Berlin version to be later, saw in it “slight, but essentially advantageous alterations,” but felt that, in the end, both “pictures are of the highest excellence in such qualities as the choice of the colours, splendour of harmony, and vigour of illumination.” Neumann, in 1905, preferred the Berlin version, as later did Rosenberg, who wrote that it was “superior to the one in Washington, its general effect being both richer and more striking.” The Washington painting, however, has had its defenders. In 1936, the year after the painting had been exhibited at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the museum’s director, Frederik Schmidt-Degener, was reported to have remarked that the painting was “infinitely superior to the Berlin picture” and to have begun even to “doubt the latter as being altogether by Rembrandt.” Benesch wrote in 1943 that the Washington version “surpasses that of Berlin in depth of psychical expression. But the Berlin version seems to be a step further in pictorial refinement, so we may regard it as the later.”
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. Gerson allowed that Bauch might be proved correct in his assessment, but stressed that the quality of the picture was difficult to assess because of the heavy varnish and “curious ‘craquelure’” that covered the surface. While Schwartz accepted both versions as by Rembrandt, Tümpel removed the Washington painting from Rembrandt’s oeuvre, calling it “nur eine schwachere Werkstattwiederholung” (merely a weak workshop copy).
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 CraquelureThe network of cracks in the paint and ground. Also sometimes referred to crackle pattern. that had obscured the image did allow a clearer assessment of the pictorial qualities of the Washington version. Two significant PentimentiAn alteration made by the artist to an area that was already painted. were revealed, changes that were intended to strengthen the narrative [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Detail of hand and robe, infrared reflectogram, Rembrandt Workshop, Joseph Accused by Potiphar's Wife, 1655, oil on canvas transferred to canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.79. Iempsar originally gestured toward Joseph’s robe with her fingers cupped. Only later was the index finger extended to direct the eye’s attention to this significant item of clothing. At the same time the robe itself was enlarged to give it more presence within the composition.
The treatment confirmed that the surface had suffered from numerous small losses and general AbrasionA 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., particularly in the blue drapes behind the bed. In part the damages may have resulted when the painting was transferred from an old canvas to a new one by E. Sivers in 1854 in Saint Petersburg. Because of the transfer, much information about ground layers and paint structure has been irretrievably lost. Nevertheless, X-radiographs [see X-radiographyA 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.] do reveal that the original support consisted of three pieces of canvas: a large center piece with a 6 cm strip along the left side and a 6 cm strip across the bottom [fig. 3] [fig. 3] X-radiograph composite, Rembrandt Workshop, Joseph Accused by Potiphar's Wife, 1655, oil on canvas transferred to canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.79. Evidence of the seams along these additions is also seen in the pattern of losses on the surface of the painting, which are easily identifiable in a photograph taken during restoration.
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. Before the strip was added to the left of the Washington support Joseph would have been quite near the left edge, rather as he is in the Berlin painting. The addition along the bottom coincides almost exactly to the placement of the step in the Berlin painting, a device that is effectively used to place the figures back in space. On the one hand, it would seem illogical, given the similarity in the positions of Joseph in the original composition and in the Berlin painting, to assume that the Washington painting, with its additions, preceded the Berlin version; on the other hand, it could also be argued that the change in composition along the bottom edge should not have been necessary had the Berlin painting been available as a point of reference. The most plausible conclusion appears to be that the paintings were being conceived simultaneously and that arguments about chronological precedence are essentially irrelevant to the compositional solutions arrived at in these works. Indeed, while these paintings obviously have many similarities, each is also consistent unto itself, not only in the way the story is presented but also in the textures, colors, and painting techniques used to characterize the scene.
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. This weakness is also evident in the figures of Potiphar and Joseph. Although Joseph’s attenuated form is sympathetically rendered, it remains quite flat. In the end, despite the many Rembrandtesque characteristics of this work, one must conclude that Rembrandt did not execute it. There is also no evidence that he reworked the painting, as proposed by Bauch, although he may well have suggested the additions and the change in the wife’s gesture. Whether or not Rembrandt was responsible for the Berlin version is a different matter. Perhaps he was, but I believe that this work was executed by an assistant, with both artists working from a common source. At the very least it would seem that models, assuming the poses of the protagonists, must have been arranged in the studio. In the Washington painting the model for Joseph was almost certainly Titus, Rembrandt’s fourteen-year-old son [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Rembrandt van Rijn, Titus at His Desk, 1655, oil on canvas, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam.
Willem Drost (Dutch, c. 1630 - after 1680) and Constantijn van Renesse (Dutch, 1626 - 1680) are two artists capable of painting such sensitive religious images. Van Renesse’s style is indeed rather close to that seen in the Washington Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife. His forms tend to lack strong three-dimensional characterization, and his figures are often attenuated in a manner quite similar to that of Joseph in his Good Samaritan in the Louvre, Paris ([fig. 5] [fig. 5] Constantijn van Renesse, The Good Samaritan, 1648, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo: RMN / Art Resource, NY. Photographer: Jean-Gilles Berizzi, also mentioned in The Descent from the Cross). Nevertheless, it is very possible that Van Renesse had already left Rembrandt’s workshop by 1654, for in that year he was named secretary of the city of Eindhoven. Too little, however, is known of the character of Rembrandt’s workshop in 1655 to assess what type of working arrangements actually existed at that time. Van de Wetering has argued that Rembrandt's paintings often served as prototypes for derivative works painted by his students, which he has termed “satellite” paintings. He has cited the Berlin painting (which he argues was painted primarily by Rembrandt) and the Washington version of Joseph and Potiphar's Wife (which he ascribes to a member of Rembrandt's workshop) as prime examples of this workshop practice. Whichever Rembrandt pupil actually executed this work, it does seem clear that, at the very least, the choice of subject and composition was determined by the master himself.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014