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Rembrandt van Rijn, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

Etching, 9.3 x 11.6 cm, 1634. Baillieu Library Collection, The University of Melbourne, Gift of Dr. Orde Poynton, 1959, Accession No. : 1959.3697.000.000.
Dutch Baroque artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) is one of the most celebrated artists in the canon of Western art. A prolific painter, Rembrandt was also a draftsman and printmaker of formidable skill. He began experimenting with various etching techniques in the 1620s and by the 1640s had revolutionized the way in which light and shade were represented in etchings through his use of chiaroscuro. Although chiaroscuro (the juxtaposition between light and dark which is utilized to enhance composition and form) was popular amongst painters, it was seldom used to the same effect and technical mastery in etchings until Rembrandt. Thus he was held in great esteem throughout Europe in his lifetime and was considered a master printmaker (Richards, 1965, pp. 107). His prints were also an important source of income for him. Unlike many artists of the time, who made drawings for prints and employed a professional printmaker to create prints after the drawings, Rembrandt’s talent for printmaking meant that he created all his own prints, ensuring greater profit upon sale (Hinterding, 1993-1994). 

Rembrandt was raised as a member of the Dutch Reformed Church and trained as an apprentice under the history painter Pieter Lastman (1583-1633). Both of these factors heavily influenced Rembrandt’s predilection for depicting both biblical and mythological events throughout his long career (Plomp, 2006, pp. 4). In this print, entitled Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1634), Rembrandt has portrayed an Old Testament biblical scene from Genesis 39, in which Potiphar’s wife unsuccessfully attempts to seduce her husband’s slave, Joseph (Zell, 2006).  The print is extremely interesting on a number of levels. From a purely visual perspective, although small in size (10.2 x 12.7 cm), the print is highly dynamic in its representation of an ephemeral moment, entirely unposed and un-staged. It captures the exact moment in which Joseph’s half-naked wife lies on a bed and pulls the emotional Joseph towards her. Adding to the dynamism of the print is the dishevelled bedding, the woman’s haphazardly pulled up nightgown, and Rembrandt’s use of chiaroscuro to add form and depth to the work. This is particularly the case around the four-poster bed on which the female figure lies, giving it a foreboding, cavernous atmosphere.

The explicit nature of the print, and particularly Potiphar’s wife’s exposed genitals, add to the dramatic narrative of the work. Although Rembrandt frequently represented the female nude in his work, they were seldom as sexually explicit as this print. Rather, they tended to be somewhat coy in their representations of female nudity, often depicting a naked woman attempting to shield herself from the viewer’s gaze (Sluijter, 2006). A factor that really sets this print apart from other artists’ and writers’ representations of the same theme is that Rembrandt seems to have attempted to portray the conflict and emotional confusion experienced by Joseph in his rejection of Potiphar’s wife, and has depicted the moment where Joseph is ‘trembling on the border between surrender and resistance’ (Levinson, 1997). Most other artists shy away from depicting the temptation that Joseph attempts to resist, instead choosing to depict him as stoic and unaffected by the advances of Potiphar’s wife (Brenner and van Henten, 1998, pp. 208). However, Joseph’s deeply human turmoil is portrayed poignantly by Rembrandt.

Despite Rembrandt’s Protestantism, he frequently depicted scenes from the Old Testament, and was known to be sympathetic to Judaism. He lived in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam and was good friends with a rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel, for whom in 1655 he illustrated the Piedra Gloriosa, a treatise on Jewish beliefs on salvation (Zell, 2006, pp. 2). However, according to Michael Zell, it was not until the 1650s that Rembrandt’s exploration of Old Testament themes was at its most constructive. This was also the period in which he painted several scenes from Genesis 39, including Joseph Resists Temptation (1655) and Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife (1655), however, no other etchings depicting this theme are known, and certainly none are as graphic as  Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (Hinterding, 1993 – 1994). This makes this particular print an early example of Rembrandt’s portrayal of scenes especially pertinent to Jewish history, which was to become an important facet of his oeuvre. When combined with the sexual nature of the print, and its dynamic depictions of fraught emotion, this etching is a key example of Rembrandt’s mastery of the medium, both technically and in terms of his conceptual treatment of subject matter.

Further details coming soon.
Brenner and van Henten, 1998
Brenner, A. & van Henten, J, ‘Madame Potiphar through a Culture Trip, or, Which Side Are You On?’, in Biblical studies, cultural studies: the third Sheffield Colloquium, J. Cheryl Exum & Stephen D. Moore (eds.), (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 19-45 

Hinterding, 1993-1994
Hinterding, E., ‘The History of Rembrandt’s Copperplates, with a Catalogue of Those That Survive’, Simiolus, Vol. 22, No. 4 (1993-1994),pp. 253-315

Levinson, 1997
Levinson, J., ‘An-Other Woman: Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife. Staging the Body Politic’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 87, No. 3/4 (Jan. – Apr., 1997), pp.269-301

Plomp, 2006
Plomp, M., ‘Rembrandt and His Circle: Drawings and Prints’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 1, Rembrandt and His Circle: Drawings and Prints (Summer, 2006), pp. 1, 3-48

Richards, 1965
Richards, L., ‘Rembrandt: Chiaroscuro and the Etchings’, The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Apr., 1965), pp. 106-111

Sluijter, 2006
Sluijter, E.,  Rembrandt and the Female Nude, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006)

Zell, 2006
Zell, M., 2006, Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian image in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).


Emmanuelle Little, University of Melbourne student enrolled in the subject Medieval Manuscripts and Early Print.

Edited by Tim Ould, research assistant on this project and PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Melbourne.

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