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Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

Oil on canvas, 1640, by Paolo Finoglia (1590 – 1645) or 1623, by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1656)

That there is some debate over the exact authorship of this painting only adds to the dual prescience of its meaning today. It is, fundamentally, either by a male artist or a female one. The subject it depicts is of both a male and a female. They are engaged in a contentious standoff. One is innocent, the other guilty. One a victim, the other a predator. But which? The painting presents a classic paradox: it is both emblematic of aggression and empowerment, entrapment and liberation, depending on how it is perceived and depending on whether Finoglia or Gentileschi authored it. Or is it? Indeed, the fact that it is riddled with ambiguity and could arguably have been conceived by either artist with either intention in mind grants the painting a curious and fascinating power. It is, essentially, about the proliferation of interpretation which can arise from one isolated incident. Therefore, it is “total art.”

From Genesis chapter 39, we read of the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife. The youthful and attractive Joseph (“of beautiful form and fair to look upon”) had been entrusted by Potiphar – head of the Egyptian palace guard – to work in his household. From his origins as a lowly slave, this was some feat of reinvention. Potiphar’s wife is bored and frustrated: no doubt old man Potiphar is out all day bossing up palace security, leaving her alone and neglected in a big, lonely Nile-side mansion. To add, Potiphar is likely to be (we can imagine) somewhat older than Mrs Potiphar (curiously never named in biblical text, although later ascribed the Hebrew name Zuleikha) and a dour, impotent, curmudgeonly bore. Assumptions aside, she is at least to some extent in a position of considerable subordination to her powerful husband, just as she is to all men of his station. Of course she becomes infatuated with the youthful servant who attends her daily, as do her bitchy aristocratic Egyptian lady friends, who she invites over to gaze on Joseph as she has him parade up and down in a loin cloth serving drinks on a tray. Legend has it that Zuleikha gave her guests oranges and knives just before summoning Joseph. So enamoured were they all with his bashful beauty, they all ended up forgetting what they were doing and cutting themselves to shreds. Needless to say, Zuleikha was never mocked again in high society for indulging in what merely amounted to the fantasies of a bored, repressed housewife. (Hence, a feminist reading of the attempted seduction tends to vindicate Zuleikha for seizing the initiative, liberating herself from patriarchal suppression and attempting to empower her sexuality.)

Time passes and Joseph behaves like a true gent, politely defusing his mistresses’ numerous advances and seductions. When one day Mrs P can no longer restrain herself, she summons him to her bedchamber where she grabs hold of his coat and tries to pull him to her bed. Joseph flees, but sacrifices his garment in the process which is then surreptitiously draped among the linen and bedclothes and which an enraged and seemingly cuckolded Mr P soon discovers when he later returns home from his duties and comes sauntering to his bedchamber. Naturally, spurned and by now neurotic with obsession, Zuleikha accuses Joseph of attempted rape and he is swiftly despatched to rot away in the slummy cells. If she cannot have him, she determines that no one will. Beware the wrath of a scorned woman, someone should have told Joseph.

There is, as with many biblical narratives, a philosophical dilemma with the story. Joseph famously had prophetic gifts: he foresaw his betrayal by his jealous brothers; he successfully predicted the coming plague and famine. He knew he would fall before he rose. From slavery he became a domestic pin-up; from prison he became the second most powerful man in Egypt. His fate was “written in the stars.” If this was the case, then one wonders whether he foresaw the seduction and how, in fact, his temporary downfall would ultimately lead to his ascension to power? If so, it casts Joseph as a shrewd political operator, enacting a long-term strategic play for social advancement. It implies that Potiphar and Potiphar’s wife were mere pawns in a grand game of political chess: a stratagem rooted in sacrifice, but with an eye on a final, grander prize.

The subject became quite popular with Baroque artists. Interestingly, contemporaries often depicted Joseph as being older and wiser to his entrapment. He is seen as a noble, pious figure standing up to the pathetic infatuations of a spiteful temptress even if he unwittingly sacrifices his freedom and the trust of his master. Somehow, these mainly male artists seemed to have been more baffled by Joseph’s refusal to bed and tame his seductress than they were invested in preserving his religious integrity; there is a degree of scorn poured over him, as if they regard his actions as an affront to some patriarchal imperative. The messy business in the bedchamber, the two of them tussling unartfully over the coat, is held up as a dismissive portrayal of weak manhood; a warning to men about ceding control to determined women. It is possible, of course, to interpret the scene as an allegory of the enslaved confronting the slaver, a testament to the Jew’s determination to ultimately liberate themselves from their Egyptian servitude.

This particular treatment eschews such convention. The focal point of the scene’s tension – the tussle itself – is vested with balance and equilibrium which, far from neutralising contested power relations, only serves to heighten the sharp contrast between the entangled couple. We observe this firstly in the distinctive tonal differences in the subjects’ faces: Potiphar’s wife is cast in half shadow, sinister and predatory, and emphasised by the use of the tenebrest technique in which the especially pronounced chiaroscuro throws up a dominating feature of darkness and shadow. Joseph’s face, however, is bathed in light: it glows and glowers with a kind of restrained energy which, combined with his suppleness and youth, makes him a far more sympathetic figure than is usually conveyed. Secondly, we note the sharp contrast in clothing and the symbolism carried in the composition of their attire. Potiphar’s wife is in a state of ready undress, the whiteness of her bedclothes forming a seamless continuity with the bedlinen; its ruffled, spoiled, creased appearance mirrors her licentious, almost unhinged attitude, whereas Joseph is modestly attired in fulsome dress and garments (he even brandishes uncharacteristic long socks and long sleeves) thus invalidating his sexuality. His attire, meanwhile, continues the theme of balance by being paired to the rich, velvety drapery and carpet. Somehow this grants him a sense of solidarity with his surrounds, while exposing Potiphar’s wife and bed as almost alienated, disconnected immoral impostors to the scene. Note how Joseph’s feet and knees are cut through with formidable tension, whereas Potiphar’s wife’s right naked foreleg contains poise and ease. The exposure of her right beast adds to the sexualised overtones of the seduction trope, but also, disconcertingly, conjures up allusions of Amazonian warrior-women, thus complicating the moral ambiguity of the scene.

Both Fingolia and Artemisia Gentileschi were particularly renowned for their skill in painting cloth and drapery, only further muddling the work’s authorship. Fittingly, cloth is the central subject of this scene: possession of the coat is what will determine presumed guilt or innocence. Joseph latches onto his coat with both hands and tugs with all his might, but Potiphar’s wife uses only one hand, which clasps it like a vice, while her other arm props her up almost casually. What are we meant to infer from this telling nuance? What is either artist saying about the power of women? Then again, we know that a coat is central to Joseph’s overall iconography, (his multi-coloured coat) so making this coat the basis of a power-play ingeniously foreshadows that: lose his grip of his coat and his downfall is secured. Except that, as said before, surrender of his coat is a temporary step which begins his subsequent rise to great power. Again, the ability for this painting to proliferate meaning is quite staggering.

The subject fits neatly into the literary topos known in the German Renaissance as Weibermacht or “Power of Women” which, according to the scholars Ainsworth, Maryan, Wynn, et al, “showed heroic or wise men dominated by women, presenting an admonitory and often humorous inversion of the male-dominated sexual hierarchy.” It became a popular theme with Florentine artists. Other such subject matter included Samson and Delilah, Salome, Lot and his Daughters, Tomyris and, most significantly, Judith beheading Holofernes, a scene which Gentileschi famously painted twice. Indeed, she is known for her paintings of biblical heroines, in which women are portrayed as determined to manifest a revolt against their condition, just as, arguably, Mrs Potiphar does when she enacts a triumph for feminine liberation over masculine domination as she sets out to seduce Joseph. In 1916, art historian Robert Longhi analysed Gentileschi’s oeuvre and concluded that over 90% of her output “featured women as protagonists equal to men.” Her history, infamously, is a tragic one: a torturous trial in which she accused a colleague of her fathers of raping her when she was seventeen scarred her for life: it is easy to surmise that a repressed-vengeance theory might inform her work.

A less reductive view, however, sees the painting, by whichever artist, as a manifestly honest depiction of the human condition. Whether Potiphar’s wife is a predator or whether she is a victim of the subjugated condition of women speaks to the dichotomy between action and inaction. The same can be said of Joseph. The real question is how are Joseph and Zuleikha (for the woman deserves a name) to navigate their respective positions? In a way, both are protagonists, both are brought equal by their positions relative to the socio-political reality of their day. The absent figure who stands central to the tension created by the scene is Potiphar himself, and above him, the authoritarian Egyptian dispensation itself; without Potiphar serving as de facto antagonist, all motivating agency is at once stripped of its cogency. The painting becomes a rather pathetic embarrassment of a parlour game gone wrong: a hapless toy-boy fighting off a repressed minx. But because of context, the opposite results: a scene of great power and intrigue, one where the stakes are high and fate hangs in the balance.

Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.


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