The story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife is told in the first
book of the Bible, Genesis, chapter 39. Joseph was sold into
slavery by his brothers and bought by Potiphar, a high ranking
official in the Pharaoh's service. "The Lord was with Joseph,"
and gave him success in everything he did. This pleased Potiphar
and before long Joseph was given the highest position in the
household, and left in charge when Potiphar was away. Now
Potiphar's wife found Joseph to be very good looking and had
approached him several times saying "come to bed with me;" and
Joseph being a man of God would not sin against his master or the
Lord, so he refused her. One day when all the servants were
gone, Joseph entered the house and Potiphar's wife approached him
and 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 attacked
and tried to sleep with her. When her husband came home she told
him the same false story. Potiphar was so angry at Joseph he had
him locked up in Pharaoh's prison. "But while Joseph was in the
prison, the Lord was with him." This is the subject matter for
which Rembrandt choose to do his representational painting by.
The content of the painting all reveals Rembrandt's
interpretation of the story
This is the account from the Bible of the accusation of
Joseph by Potiphar's Wife. Rembrandt Van Ryn chose this
particular story as the subject of his narrative painting
completed in 1655, under the title of "Joseph Accused By
Potiphar's Wife". Before researching this painting, I noted my
fist perception of Rembrandt work of art. I realized through
that as a result of my later research, my first perception did
not change, but instead were enriched and enlarged by a newfound
understanding of the man and his art. I largely concentrated on
my first and later perceptions in the design elements and
principles of lighting or value, infinite space, color, and focal
After conducting research, my first perceptions about the
value, or relative degree of lightness or darkness, in the
painting did not change, but instead I learned that Rembrandt's
use of light and dark was both purposeful and a technique well-
known to the artists of his time. When I first observed this
painting, I thought how dark everything seemed. The only
exceptions to the darkness are the bed and Potiphar's wife, both
of which are flooded in light almost as if a spotlight were
thrown on her and the bed. Some light shines on Joseph's face
and from behind him like a halo around his body, but this light
is very dim. Potiphar in great contrast to his wife is almost in
complete darkness. I first felt there should be more light from
perhaps candles to cast the entire room in partial light. But
after research I found that "Rembrandt liked strong contrasts of
light and dark and used them in his paintings all his life,
letting darkness hide unnecessary details while using light to
bring figures and objects out from the shadows. The high
contrast of light against dark changed an ordinary scene into a
dramatic one ... the Italian word for this use of light and dark
[is] chiaroscuro " (Muhlberger 9). Rembrandt must have believed
that too much detail in the room would have obscured the primary
players of this scene. He uses light to brightly illuminate the
most important person in this painting, Potiphar's wife. In
descending order of importance, Rembrandt places a glow around
Joseph and casts Potiphar in a almost total darkness. I now am
able to see how the contrast of light and dark demonstrates
drastically this crucial turning point in Joseph's life. The
fact that an Italian word exists for Rembrandt's lighting
technique only proves the...
Cited: Barker, Kenneth. The Holy Bible, New International Version.
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House,1995.
Muhlberger, Richard. What Makes A Rembrandt A Rembrandt? New
York: Viking, 1993.
Munz, Ludwig. Rembrandt. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1984
Schwartz, Gary. First Impressiaons:Rembrandt. New York: Harry N.
Abrams Inc, 1992.
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