Joseph and Potiphars wife (c.1630-2) by Orazio GentileschiRoyal Collection Trust, UK
The son of a of a Florentine goldsmith, Orazio Gentileschi 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.
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.
As if spot-lit on the stage of a theatre, Gentileschi shows Potiphar’s wife attempting to seduce Joseph in a sumptuous, but almost unbearably claustrophobic space, which adds to the sensuality and tension of the scene.
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.
Her hand holding onto Joseph’s golden coat at the very centre is the narrative focus of the composition. Its colour stands out against the expanse of red behind it.
Orazio worked directly on to the canvas, building up the composition methodically. He established the background and floor before adding the furniture, followed by drapery and figures.
The floor tiles run under drapery and were painted before the figures.
The bed was painted before the untucked sheets.
The folds and creases in the crisp white sheets are meticulously rendered.
The positions of the figures did not change dramatically once painting had begun, but some alterations were made. The positions of Joseph’s legs were slightly moved.
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 to below the chin of Potiphar’s wife.
The seams, folds and sheen of the expensive heavy scarlet curtain which fills the composition are painted with superb virtuosity.
The highly saturated colour of scarlet clashes with the burgundy of Joseph’s tunic.
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.
To explain the light in the scene we can imagine a single, powerful lamp was placed just in front of the painting at its right edge: Joseph’s legs cast their shadow backwards.
The bed legs cast their shadows across to the left.
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.
The light tellingly catches the backward glance of Joseph, his face in half shadow, as he flees the room.
The refinement of the painting with two figures placed so carefully and meticulously painted is a long way from Caravaggio’s work. It recalls the work of other court painters and relates to the elaborate masques which were much enjoyed at the court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. This courtly style ended when Charles I was executed in 1649 and his collection of art was sold.
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020