Word Count: 1672The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is told in the firstbook of the Bible, Genesis, chapter 39.
Joseph was sold intoslavery by his brothers and bought by Potiphar, a high rankingofficial in the Pharaoh’s service. “The Lord was with Joseph,”and gave him success in everything he did. This pleased Potipharand before long Joseph was given the highest position in thehousehold, and left in charge when Potiphar was away. NowPotiphar’s wife found Joseph to be very good looking and hadapproached him several times saying “come to bed with me;” andJoseph being a man of God would not sin against his master or theLord, so he refused her. One day when all the servants weregone, Joseph entered the house and Potiphar’s wife approached himand 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 attackedand tried to sleep with her.
When her husband came home she toldhim the same false story. Potiphar was so angry at Joseph he hadhim locked up in Pharaoh’s prison. “But while Joseph was in theprison, the Lord was with him.” This is the subject matter forwhich Rembrandt choose to do his representational painting by. The content of the painting all reveals Rembrandt’sinterpretation of the storyThis is the account from the Bible of the accusation of Joseph by Potiphar’s Wife. Rembrandt Van Ryn chose thisparticular story as the subject of his narrative paintingcompleted in 1655, under the title of “Joseph Accused ByPotiphar’s Wife”.
Before researching this painting, I noted myfist perception of Rembrandt work of art. I realized throughthat as a result of my later research, my first perception didnot change, but instead were enriched and enlarged by a newfoundunderstanding of the man and his art. I largely concentrated onmy first and later perceptions in the design elements andprinciples of lighting or value, infinite space, color, and focalpoint.After conducting research, my first perceptions about thevalue, or relative degree of lightness or darkness, in thepainting did not change, but instead I learned that Rembrandt’suse of light and dark was both purposeful and a technique well-known to the artists of his time. When I first observed thispainting, I thought how dark everything seemed. The onlyexceptions to the darkness are the bed and Potiphar’s wife, bothof which are flooded in light almost as if a spotlight werethrown on her and the bed. Some light shines on Joseph’s faceand from behind him like a halo around his body, but this lightis very dim.
Potiphar in great contrast to his wife is almost incomplete darkness. I first felt there should be more light fromperhaps candles to cast the entire room in partial light. Butafter research I found that “Rembrandt liked strong contrasts oflight and dark and used them in his paintings all his life,letting darkness hide unnecessary details while using light tobring figures and objects out from the shadows.
The highcontrast of light against dark changed an ordinary scene into adramatic one … the Italian word for this use of light and darkis chiaroscuro ” (Muhlberger 9). Rembrandt must have believedthat too much detail in the room would have obscured the primaryplayers of this scene. He uses light to brightly illuminate themost important person in this painting, Potiphar’s wife. Indescending order of importance, Rembrandt places a glow aroundJoseph and casts Potiphar in a almost total darkness.
I now amable to see how the contrast of light and dark demonstratesdrastically this crucial turning point in Joseph’s life. Thefact that an Italian word exists for Rembrandt’s lightingtechnique only proves the technique’s establishment in the artworld he lived and worked in.As a result of research, my fist perceptions about thepresence of infinite space in the painting did not change, butinstead I gained an understanding of why Rembrandt employed thisparticular technique in his painting. I first noticed beforeconducting any research on Rembrandt or this painting how thewalls appear to go on indefinitely; there are no boundaries tothe room. In addition the artist chose not to add and details tothe walls or floor. I believe that the design element ofinfinite space, endless space as found in nature, best describesthis technique.
Upon conducting my research I found that,according to Richard Muhlberger, “Rembrandt learned to lavishattention on small parts of a painting, leaving the rest withoutmuch detail. He knew that details look more impressivesurrounded by areas that are plain; they are harder to noticewhen they cover the entire surface of a painting” (16). Obviously in this painting of ,Rembrandt’s purpose in using the design element of infinite spaceis to attract the audience to the characters in this story andnot so much their surroundings, with the exception, perhaps, ofthe bed. Therefore, my perception of this design element wasonly enlarged by the knowledge of Rembrandt’s motivation inincluding infinite space in his composition.My first perceptions about the colors in the painting didnot change, but instead I gained an understanding of how thecolors Rembrandt used contributed to the characters’portrayal/depiction. Color, the character of a surface resultingfrom the response of vision to the wavelength of light reflectedfrom that surface, influences people in various ways.
One of thegreatest color affects people is through their emotions. When Ifirst studied the painting of Joseph being Accused by Potiphar’swife, the dreary, somber colors left me feeling depressed. I’venever really enjoyed Rembrandt’s painting because of his frequentuse of low intensity colors like muddy browns. But then, afterreading the passage in the first book of the Bible, Genesis,where the story in the painting is recounted, I began tounderstand Rembrandt’s reasoning behind his choice of colors (atleast) for this particular painting). Joseph is being accused byhis master’s wife, the master he has served with all of hisability, of a crime he has not committed, not even in his mind,despite the many opportunities the woman has given him. ForRembrandt 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 ofan Egyptian official’s bedroom, Rembrandt chose to underscore theseriousness of Joseph’s situation through color.
After researching Rembrandt’s painting, my first perceptionsof the focal point of this composition did not change, but I feltI understand better how he created the focal point. Beforeresearching Rembrandt’s work, I felt drawn to the woman in thispainting for the mere fact that she is easiest to see and in themiddle of the picture. The design principle, focal point, thepoint of emphasis that attracts attention and encourages theviewer to look further best explains how I was pulled in byPotiphar’s wife. Through my research I discovered Rembrandt, inorder to heighten the importance of Potiphar’s wife’s action, herfingers pointing to the robe, placed her fingertips in the middleof the canvas (Munz 10).
Another important placement involvesthe bed. After a careful look at the picture, I found the bedalso is located in the middle of the painting, and covers overhalf of the canvas. The bed also then another focal point sinceit dominates the composition while other areas are subordinate toit.
Rembrandt’s focal points work because of the strong contrastbetween light and dark and because of placement of the charactersin this story. Thus, through research I learned how Rembrandtachieves his focal points which my first perception initiallydiscovered.Now without knowing the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wifeone could piece together the events taking place by the contentin the painting. There is a large room partly lit. In thecenter is a bed with snow white sheets fitted perfectly, as if amaid had just finished dressing it. To the side of the bed,seated in an equally large chair, is a most troubled-lookingwoman. She is adorned with a lavish, bright-colored gown, andwears decorative jewelry, with her hair luxuriously woven.
Shepoints with her right hand an accusing finger at a dark marooncloak draped on one of the bed posts. Her other hand nurses atorn lapel of an under garment, suggesting she has been in somemanner 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. Heleans on the back of her chair, his hand closed, but his armpointing in the same direction as the cloak. His other arm is onhis hip directly above a sheathed sword.
His overall stature andfacial expression appears quizzical, as he ponders over theserious situation. The situation of course concerns theaccusation his wife makes of the owner of the cloak. The lonelyfigure in the corner dressed in the drab olive green tunic standssilently listening to the woman, obviously the accused owner ofthis cloak. His maroon red sash with the keys reveals hisimportance to the household. Rembrandt clearly brought this”scene to life convincingly”(Schwartz 15). For him to haveaccomplished this feat, he “had to give each figure anappropriate expression, pose, and costume”(Schwartz 15).
Allthis Rembrandt has done, leaving us with a tragic moment inbiblical history captured beautifully in this awesome painting ofJoseph accused by Potiphar’s wife.Work CitedBarker, Kenneth. The Holy Bible, New International Version.
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House,1995.Muhlberger, Richard. What Makes A Rembrandt A Rembrandt? NewYork: Viking, 1993.
Munz, Ludwig. Rembrandt. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1984Schwartz, Gary.
First Impressiaons:Rembrandt. New York: Harry N.Abrams Inc, 1992.