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

Joseph and Potiphar's wife

Etching, first state of two, 90 x 115 mm
Teylers Museum, Haarlem

Catalogue number: Bartsch 39.

This etching is Rembrandt's most forthright image of sexual lust run wild. He evokes the scene from the story of Joseph when the good-looking young man is assaulted by the wife of his employer Potiphar.

Joseph was the elder son of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob and of Rachel. His numerous older brothers were strictly only half-brothers, being the sons of Leah or of handmaidens. The events of his romantic life story have been depicted continuously in Christian art from the 6th century onwards. The medieval Church saw the episodes of his life as a prefiguration of the life of Christ, and it is to this that he owes his important place in Christian art.

When in Egypt as a slave, Potiphar, captain of the Pharaoh's guard, bought Joseph from the Ishmaelites and made him steward of his household (Gen. 39:7-20). Potiphar's wife 'cast her eyes over him and said, "Come and lie with me."' He refused her though she continued to press him. One day when they were alone together she clutched his robes, pleading with him to make love to her. At this, Joseph fled so precipitately that he left his cloak at her hands. When Potiphar came home she avenged her humiliation by accusing Joseph of trying to violate her, using the cloak as evidence. Joseph was promptly thrown into prison.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 5 minutes):
Étienne Nicolas Méhul: Joseph, aria