|Anonymous, Joseph Judging His Brothers|
Flemish, 16th Century
Chambery, Musee des Beaux-Arts
"I am your brother Joseph, whom you once sold into Egypt.
But now do not be distressed, and do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you.
For two years now the famine has been in the land, and for five more years tillage will yield no harvest.
God, therefore, sent me on ahead of you to ensure for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.
So it was not really you but God who had me come here; and he has made of me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:5-8)
The story of Joseph is, of course, a familiar one. But, rather surprisingly, there are not too many depictions of the climactic scene in art. Most visual representations of Joseph’s story focus on the incident earlier in Joseph’s life, when he had to repulse the romantic advances of the wife of the Egyptian official Potiphar (Genesis 39). This is probably no surprise because tales of spicy advances have always been highly favored, and the reversal of usual roles in the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife makes for a nice variation on the usual formula.
|Master of the Roman de Fauvel, from|
Bible historiale of Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c.1325-1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 156, fol. 40
and especially in such Mannerist paintings as Pontormo’s Joseph in Egypt
|Pontormo, Joseph in Egypt|
London, National Gallery
|Giovanni Battista Gaulli (Baciccio), Joseph Recognized By His Brothers|
Ajaccio, Palais Flesch, Musee des Beaux-Arts
or the 17th-century work of Giovanni Battista Gaulli (Baciccio)
|Antoine Coypel, Joseph Recognized By His Brothers|
Paris, Mobilier Nationale
and in the 18th-century tapestry design of Joseph Recognized By His Brothers by Antoine Coypel, is of a fantasy land. The settings and costumes of the characters are neither clothing contemporary with the painter nor based on any historical model. They suggest a theatrical vision of the “East”.
Similar costuming could have applied to stories from Rome or Persia (with turbans). There is nothing very specifically Egyptian about them. In light of the fact that Egyptian antiquities were relatively well known in Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and 1800 (think of the obelisks in Rome, for instance) this is a bit puzzling. The evidence was there, it just wasn't being used.
|Francois Gerard, Joseph Recognized By His Brothers|
French, ca. 1800
Angers, Musee des Beaux-Arts
Gerard is best known as the painter of the courts of Napoleon I and his Bourbon successors, Louis XVIII and Charles X. His career spans the first half of the 19th century. His Joseph inhabits a world with definite Egyptian details. There are sphinxes on the arms of his chair and above his head on the terrace of a building. He himself wears a nemes headdress. The difference, as they say, is in the details. But what has made the change? In a single word, Napoleon.
In July 1798 then-General Napoleon Bonaparte, at the orders of the Directory then running France following the disastrous years of the Revolution and the Reign of Terror, led a French army across the Mediterranean to land at Alexandria. The intent of the mission was to damage Britain by cutting into her trade routes through the ports of Palestine and the Levant. (The Suez Canal did not exist at this time, remember.) France simultaneously attempted to tie the British down in their home islands by sending an invasion force to Ireland (as part of the ill-fated 1798 rebellion there). All went well at first for Bonaparte. He won several battles over the Mamluk warriors who then held Egypt and took control of the country. He also conquered parts of Palestine.
|Antoine-Jean Gros, Battle of the Pyramids|
In August 1798 the French navy was virtually destroyed by Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and the French army was thereby cut off from both resupply and wholesale evacuation from Egypt. Although continuing to function well for another year, it was eventually evident that they could not hope to keep control of the country for very long. So, as he would do again in 1812 in Russia, Napoleon decided to cut his own loses and publicize his victories in advance of eventual defeat. He quietly slipped out of Egypt back to France. He returned to a France in crisis. The Directory was near collapse and a coup was planned against it. His position as Victor over Egypt gave him brilliant notoriety and shortly after his return he became the leading member of the Consulate that replaced the deposed Directory. By the end of the year he was First Consul. He went on from there to become First Consul for Life and, finally, Emperor.
Egyptian, 196 BC
London, British Museum
Without adequate resupply the army's ability to continue to hold Egypt diminished dramatically and Egypt was captured by the British in 1801. At that time many of the discoveries made by the scholars fell into the hands of the British, including the famous Rosetta Stone.
This stele with its text written in ancient hieroglyphs, in demotic Egyptian and in ancient Greek became the key to the problem of deciphering the hieroglyphs and is today in the British Museum, not the Louvre.
|Charles Percier, Egyptian caryatid and design for decorative panel|
Paris, Musee du Louvre, Departement des Arts graphiques
However, the information that did come back to France with the scholars and artists set off a craze for all things Egyptian and before long there were Egyptian tea services, Egyptian chairs, sphinx ornamented furniture, Egyptian themed jewelry. Frequently, items of Egyptomania sat side by side in the homes of the fashionable with equally important Roman Revival objects.
The fact that most of the artifacts found by Napoleon's scholars went to Britain set off a wave of similar Egyptomania there as well. It has been part of our world ever since, ebbing and flowing as new discoveries, such as the tomb of King Tutanhkamun, come to light.
In the realm of painting the Egyptian craze set in motion the search for the exotic that marks the work of so many painters from the second quarter of the 19th century onward. Painters were no longer content to merely imagine exotic locales. They went there to sketch. Examples abound in later 19th-century painting.
|Charles Gleyre, Egyptian Temple|
Lausanne, Musee Cantonale des Beaux-Arts
The Swiss-born Gleyre, the teacher of many of the major Impressionists, produced images such as the
|Jean-Leon Gerome, Napoleon Before the Sphinx|
San Simeon, CA, Hearst Castle
Jean-Leon Gerome went to Egypt in 1856 and, from his experiences there produced Napoleon Before the Sphinx.
The story of Joseph also received more realistic treatment. By the last decades of the 19th century paintings of his story are set in a recognizably ancient Egypt.
|Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Joseph, Overseer of the Pharoah's Granaries|
and Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers by the Franco-British, James Tissot, inhabit an entirely different world from the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque images.
|James Tissot, Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers|
New York, Jewish Museum