Joseph Accused By Potiphar’s Wife

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 technique’s establishment in the art
world he lived and worked in.

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As a result of research, my fist perceptions about the
presence of infinite space in the painting did not change, but
instead I gained an understanding of why Rembrandt employed this
particular technique in his painting. I first noticed before
conducting any research on Rembrandt or this painting how the
walls appear to go on indefinitely; there are no boundaries to
the room. In addition the artist chose not to add and details to
the walls or floor. I believe that the design element of
infinite space, endless space as found in nature, best describes
this technique. Upon conducting my research I found that,
according to Richard Muhlberger, “Rembrandt learned to lavish
attention on small parts of a painting, leaving the rest without
much detail. He knew that details look more impressive
surrounded by areas that are plain; they are harder to notice
when they cover the entire surface of a painting” (16).
Obviously in this painting of Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife,
Rembrandt’s purpose in using the design element of infinite space
is to attract the audience to the characters in this story and
not so much their surroundings, with the exception, perhaps, of
the bed. Therefore, my perception of this design element was
only enlarged by the knowledge of Rembrandt’s motivation in
including infinite space in his composition.

My first perceptions about the colors in the painting did
not change, but instead I gained an understanding of how the
colors Rembrandt used contributed to the characters’
portrayal/depiction. Color, the character of a surface resulting
from the response of vision to the wavelength of light reflected
from that surface, influences people in various ways. One of the
greatest color affects people is through their emotions. When I
first studied the painting of Joseph being Accused by Potiphar’s
wife, the dreary, somber colors left me feeling depressed. I’ve
never really enjoyed Rembrandt’s painting because of his frequent
use of low intensity colors like muddy browns. But then, after
reading the passage in the first book of the Bible, Genesis,
where the story in the painting is recounted, I began to
understand Rembrandt’s reasoning behind his choice of colors (at
least) for this particular painting). Joseph is being accused by
his master’s wife, the master he has served with all of his
ability, of a crime he has not committed, not even in his mind,
despite the many opportunities the woman has given him. For
Rembrandt 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 of
an Egyptian official’s bedroom, Rembrandt chose to underscore the
seriousness of Joseph’s situation through color.

After researching Rembrandt’s painting, my first perceptions
of the focal point of this composition did not change, but I felt
I understand better how he created the focal point. Before
researching Rembrandt’s work, I felt drawn to the woman in this
painting for the mere fact that she is easiest to see and in the
middle of the picture. The design principle, focal point, the
point of emphasis that attracts attention and encourages the
viewer to look further best explains how I was pulled in by
Potiphar’s wife. Through my research I discovered Rembrandt, in
order to heighten the importance of Potiphar’s wife’s action, her
fingers pointing to the robe, placed her fingertips in the middle
of the canvas (Munz 10). Another important placement involves
the bed. After a careful look at the picture, I found the bed
also is located in the middle of the painting, and covers over
half of the canvas. The bed also then another focal point since
it dominates the composition while other areas are subordinate to
it. Rembrandt’s focal points work because of the strong contrast
between light and dark and because of placement of the characters
in this story. Thus, through research I learned how Rembrandt
achieves his focal points which my first perception initially

Now without knowing the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife
one could piece together the events taking place by the content
in the painting. There is a large room partly lit. In the
center is a bed with snow white sheets fitted perfectly, as if a
maid had just finished dressing it. To the side of the bed,
seated in an equally large chair, is a most troubled-looking
woman. She is adorned with a lavish, bright-colored gown, and
wears decorative jewelry, with her hair luxuriously woven. She
points with her right hand an accusing finger at a dark maroon
cloak draped on one of the bed posts. Her other hand nurses a
torn lapel of an under garment, suggesting she has been in some
manner 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. He
leans on the back of her chair, his hand closed, but his arm
pointing in the same direction as the cloak. His other arm is on
his hip directly above a sheathed sword. His overall stature and
facial expression appears quizzical, as he ponders over the
serious situation. The situation of course concerns the
accusation his wife makes of the owner of the cloak. The lonely
figure in the corner dressed in the drab olive green tunic stands
silently listening to the woman, obviously the accused owner of
this cloak. His maroon red sash with the keys reveals his
importance to the household. Rembrandt clearly brought this
“scene to life convincingly”(Schwartz 15). For him to have
accomplished this feat, he “had to give each figure an
appropriate expression, pose, and costume”(Schwartz 15). All
this Rembrandt has done, leaving us with a tragic moment in
biblical history captured beautifully in this awesome painting of
Joseph accused by Potiphar’s wife.

Work 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.

Category: History