REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn
(b. 1606, Leiden, d. 1669, Amsterdam)

Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph

1656
Oil on canvas, 173 x 209 cm
Staatliche Museen, Kassel

Although he was an infinitely skilful and perceptive portraitist, Rembrandt always thought of himself in the first place as a history painter, that is, a painter of scenes from the Bible, classical history and mythology. This painting of 1656 is one of Rembrandt's greatest achievements as a history painter.

The subject is taken from the book of Genesis, chapter 48. The dying patriarch Jacob is shown blessing his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh. Their father Joseph and his wife Asenath stand behind the children. Rather than blessing the eldest son, the dark Manasseh, with his right hand, Jacob gave his first blessing to the younger, the fair-haired Ephraim. Joseph thought that his father had made a mistake but Jacob replied 'I know it, my son, I know it; he also shall become a prophet, and he also shall be great; but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.' It was later claimed by the early fathers of the church, notably Ambrose and Augustine, that Ephraim was the ancestor of the Christians and Manasseh of the Jews.

In Rembrandt's version Jacob blesses Ephraim but there is no sign of Joseph's questioning of his father - indeed he steadies his father's hand and the presence of Asenath is not mentioned in the Biblical account. She is mentioned only once in the Bible (Genesis chapter 41, verse 45) but Rembrandt makes her a major figure of great dignity, balancing the two men on the left. She was Egyptian and wears a headdress of a late medieval Burgundian type which Rembrandt must have considered Egyptian in origin. The prime focus of the painting is, however, on the tender gesture of the aged patriarch as he blesses Ephraim, and Joseph's outstretched hand and kind smile as he assists his father. The central scene is broadly painted in delicate yellows, browns and reds with remarkable economy and precision. Rembrandt creates a mood which is both intimate and sacred, tender and solemn.