Orazio Gentileschi was the son of a Florentine goldsmith but moved to Rome where he was profoundly affected by Caravaggio’s intense observation from life, dramatic use of light and arrangement of figures close to the picture plane. In his sixties Orazio arrived in London at the court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, and painted a series of works, including this one, for Henrietta Maria’s Italianate Queen’s House at Greenwich, which had been designed by Inigo Jones.

In the Old Testament story 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, though Joseph rejected her advances. One day, ‘she caught his by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house.’ Later she denounced Joseph as the seducer, using the garment as evidence, and he was sent to prison.

Potiphar’s wife is half naked; her hair is dishevelled, and the sheets are ruckled and untucked as if a struggle has just taken place. The woman holds onto Joseph’s golden coat, while Joseph escapes.
Both figures are dressed in contemporary fashion. The meticulous rendering of fabrics and boldly rich colours were the speciality of Florentine artists, reminding us of Gentileschi’s origins. As in Caravaggio’s paintings the light is strong, dramatic and tells the story. It accentuates the cool flesh of Potiphar’s wife and draws attention to the sheets which contrast with the highly saturated reds, golds and burgundy colours. Her face is fully lit, her lips parted while his backward glance is caught in half shadow.

The refinement of the painting with two figures placed so carefully and painted so meticulously is a long way from Caravaggio’s work. It recalls the work of other artists working for courts such as Gerrit Honthorst and Simon Vouet. It also relates to the elaborate court masques which were much enjoyed at the court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria.

Charles I was executed in 1649 and his collection of art was sold. This painting was recovered when Charles I’s son, Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and has remained in the Royal Collection ever since.


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