I have posted on ‘Fame’, Jealous Potiphar’s Sister-In-Law and on three paintings from my essay on Women in Genesis in Potiphar’s Wife II. Here is the continuation of the discussion on three other paintings.
The next three Potiphar’s wife paintings I wish to mention are those of Orazio Gentileschi 1626 – 1630, Master of the Joseph Legend (active c.1500) undated, and ‘Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife’ by Rembrandt Harmenszoon Rijn 1655.
These three works are interesting, not only for the expressiveness of the hands and faces but also for the elements of position, power and status which are at play. Not just the power or status of potiphar’s wife but of Joseph. In Gentileschi, like the early three paintings mentioned, there is just Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Yet here her face has regret and some reproach as she extends her hand with his coat. There is an obvious power play and battle at work between both. Joseph walks away confidently with an air of authority. More than lust seems to be at play.
In Master of the Joseph Legend and Rembrandt, again there is power but also relationship. Potiphar and perhaps servants or jailers are present in Master of the Joseph Legend. The woman grasps at Joseph. Joseph thinks of his master. The wife who is now finely clothed tells her story to Potiphar while pointing to Joseph’s coat and Potiphar clasps at his chest with perhaps pain and puzzlement that his trusted and favoured manager has betrayed him. There are others in the background who may be servants or jailers taking Joseph off to prison.
In Rembrandt again the woman’s hands are central as they point to the bed and Joseph’s coat. Joseph looks on silently as she engages Potiphar who along with the woman is on one side of the bed and leans in to hear her. Potiphar appears to side with his wife. However Joseph the Hebrew slave is on the other side. He holds the symbols of power and status at his waist, the keys to the household which he soon looses.
The centrality of the hand and face motif in the paintings conveys the impression of a woman who is not without power. This does add to Bach’s recovery of the woman’s voice. With her hands, the woman entreats with tenderness but also grasps. She has power over people’s lives and perhaps expects to be obeyed. Though an elevated manager, Joseph is also a slave in Potiphar’s house which is the woman’s domain. Her relation to power and status is somewhat different to his. Perhaps Joseph had conscientiously fulfilled her other demands in the context of management of the household yet his loyalty and trust are Potiphar’s.
We also see a woman who in the particular situation of attempted seduction then rejection calls every skill at hand to preserve her position and status as she appeals to her husband, and holds out the coat as evidence. The power over the final outcome of her own actions however is not hers, she must and does successfully appeal to male power and position.