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Orazio Gentileschi (Pisa 1563-London 1639)

Joseph and Potiphar's wife c.1630-2

Oil on canvas | 206.0 x 261.9 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 405477

Cumberland Art Gallery, Bedchamber, Hampton Court Palace

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Joseph was bought by Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard, and appointed overseer of his household. One day Potiphar's wife caught him by his garment and said 'lie with me'; Joseph fled, leaving the garment in her hands. The painting was one of a group by Gentileschi brought together by Henrietta Maria to decorate the Queen's House, Greenwich.

This painting depicts a scene from the Book of Genesis (39: 7-20) which tells how Joseph was bought by Potiphar, the Egyptian captain of Pharaoh's guard, who appointed him overseer of his household. Potiphar's wife attempted to seduce him on several occasions, although he rejected her advances. One day, 'she caught him by his garment, saying, 'Lie with me'. But he left his garment in her hands, and fled and got out of the house'. Later she denounced Joseph as the seducer, using the garment as evidence.

The painting was first recorded at Greenwich when a frame was prepared for it in 1633-4. Gentileschi's last recorded payment was for £400 under a Privy Seal warrant of 14 June 1632, paid on 27 July, and it is likely that part of this payment was for the present painting. Joseph and Potiphar's Wife was one of a group of paintings by Gentileschi brought together for Henrietta Maria in the Italianate Queen's House at Greenwich, designed by Inigo Jones. It may have been brought to Greenwich in 1633-4, but was probably only hung in the Queen's House after 1637, when work was still being carried out on the interiors and where it remained until the Commonwealth Sale. The painting was possibly hung upstairs in the Queen's Antechamber or the north-west Cabinet Room in the Queen's House. The unusual perspective of the scene - it is best viewed from close to, near the left-hand edge - suggests that Gentileschi may have had a specific hanging position in mind even if it was several years before it could be installed in the Queen's House.

This painting may have been cleaned and restored between the two visits of G.F. Waagen to Hampton Court in 1837 and 1854, since in his first account he praises the strong colouring and the striking effect, but in the second he laments the effects of over-cleaning. More recent analysis of the picture, during its conservation in 1978, revealed that the canvas was prepared with a glue layer followed by two layers of priming, a red layer and a grey-white. This was the practice recommended by Théodore Turquet de Mayerne in his Pictoria Sculptoria of 1620. The composition was built up methodically, with the floor tiles painted before the figures, the bed before the untucked sheets and Potiphar's wife. De Mayerne also recorded that Gentileschi added to his palette a drop of Venetian amber varnish (of the kind used for lutes) to give his flesh areas a translucent and lustrous effect. Although the final appearance of the painting is characteristically meticulous, the main areas were blocked in freely before the figures were added.

Gentileschi's practice seems to have been to work directly on to the canvas without drawings, as Caravaggio had done. Analysis from cross-sections and x-rays have revealed that the position of the two protagonists did not alter significantly once painting had begun, but some other changes were made: the perspective of the painting was altered by lowering the far side of the bed; the curtain was raised on the left and the pillow lowered; the right arm of Potiphar's wife and Joseph's legs were slightly moved, and her further breast, at first demurely covered, was revealed. Paint analysis reveals an early use of bitumen, a substance more usually associated with eighteenth and nineteenth-century paintings, for the browns in the green bed-cover, the black background and the braid decorating the edges of Joseph's tunic.

The smooth surfaces and meticulous rendering of sumptuous fabrics remind us that Gentileschi trained in Florence with its strong tradition of draughtsmanship, and at a time when Bronzino's style was still popular. This late Mannerist style was deeply influenced by the young Caravaggio in Rome. It was characteristic of Gentileschi to repeat compositions with small alterations and to reuse particular poses. The figure of Joseph appears in a previous Gentileschi composition, yet it was probably also studied from life. We know that Gentileschi continued to employ male and female models in his English period: both elegant figures have a weighty presence and vivid reality, which suggests that he has used them here.

To explain the light in the scene we must imagine a single, powerful lamp placed just in front of the painting at its right edge: Joseph's legs cast their shadow backwards; the bed legs cast theirs across to the left. This strong, dramatic and literal-minded lighting recalls Caravaggio as it accentuates the cool flesh of Potiphar's wife and her beautifully white, though dishevelled, sheets, and tellingly catches Joseph's backward glance. The actors in the scene wear contemporary clothes, but this element of realism is transformed by the virtuoso rendering of fabrics in highly saturated colours, so characteristic of Gentileschi's late style.

The studied finish and theatrical elegance of this painting are characteristic of the taste of Charles I's court, for which elaborate and artificial masques were created. This refinement was also part of an international court style which had developed from Caravaggio and which can also be seen in the smooth finish and rich colours of Gerrit van Honthorst and Simon Vouet. Gentileschi is sometimes criticised for choosing visual pleasure rather than psychological intensity. This painting has both: the colours clash, particularly the red, burgundy, orange and gold; the rich hangings suggest conspiracy as well as sensuality. The dominant effect of the painting is claustrophobia: an illusionistic curtain (which seems almost to be covering the surface of the painting) closes off a shallow space; even the implied positions of the viewer and the light source are thrust up against this scene of dangerous seduction.

Signed on the back of the original canvas: HORATIVS - GENTILESCV/ FECIT

Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007