(Serina, near Bergamo, 1515 – 1575 Venice)
Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife
Oil on canvas
10 ½ x 35 inches (26.7 x 88.9 cm)
Palazzo Pisani at San Stefano, Venice
Mrs. F. Craighead (possibly Mrs. Fay Stinson Craighead, Evansville, Indiana)
Sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 7 June 1978, lot 310, as Bonifazio Veronese
Daniel M. Friedenberg, New York, until 2011; and by descent to:
Russell Friedenberg, until 2014
Giuseppe Pavanello, Gli Inventari di Pietro Edwards nella Biblioteca del Seminario Patriarcale di Venezia, Venice 2006, pp. 132, 140, as no. 10 in Pietro Edwards’ inventory of the Palazzo Pisani: “Giuseppe che fugge dalla moglie di Pitifarre” by Bonifacio Veronese.
Philip Cottrell and Peter Humfrey, Bonifacio de’ Pitati, (forthcoming), cat. no. 166h.
Antonio Palma is the least well-known member of the illustrious Palma family of Venetian painters of the 16th century. He was the nephew of Jacopo Palma—Palma il Vecchio—and upon his uncle’s death in 1528, he began to work with Palma Vecchio’s principal student and the inheritor of the elder artist’s studio, Bonifazio de’ Pitati (Bonifazio Veronese). Antonio worked with Bonifazio as his principal assistant and right-hand man until Bonifazio’s death in 1553, after which he continued his independent career. He married a niece of his master, and their second son, Jacopo, born in 1648, would achieve fame as Palma il Giovane.
The present painting was long considered a work by Bonifazio, but recent scholarship has established that it is in fact by Antonio Palma, working in association with his master. The painting formed part of a room decoration, probably painted for the Pisani family, that was recorded in the Palazzo Pisani in Campo Santo Stefano, Venice, in 1802. In their forthcoming monograph on Bonifazio Veronese, Philip Cottrell and Peter Humfrey have associated nine like-sized canvases with the project, including our Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife. One of these, Mucius Scaevola before Lars Porsena, is in the Pinacoteca Egidio Martini at Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice. The whereabouts of the remaining seven is at present unknown, although they remained together with the present work until the 1970s. Humfrey and Cottrell date these paintings to ca. 1545-50 and consider them painted by a single artist active in Bonifazio’s workshop, whom they identify as Antonio Palma.
The painting dramatically illustrates the biblical tale of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife. As related in Genesis, Joseph, when captive in Egypt, had been sold to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh’s Guard, in whose house he lived and whom he served as a trusted majordomo. Potiphar’s unnamed wife repeatedly attempted to seduce the handsome Joseph, who remained loyal to his master. One day while alone in the house with Joseph, “she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled” (Genesis 39:15). So rejected, she then accused Joseph of attempted rape, brandishing the cloak he had abandoned as evidence against him. Potiphar then apprehended Joseph and imprisoned him.
The principal part of the composition depicts Potiphar’s wife, seated on her large bed, desperately reaching for Joseph and holding the red cloak that Joseph, his arms outstretched in alarm, had draped across him. Just outside to the right, through an open portico, the turbaned Potiphar is seen directing the accused Joseph to prison. He is still attired in his blue garment, but his shoulders are now slumped in resignation as he is being marched by two guards towards the prison, the door to which a helmeted jailer is opening with a key. The story is brilliantly, almost cinematically told with clarity and directness as the narrative plays out across the canvas.
Dr. Peter Humfrey has kindly shared a catalogue entry on the series from his forthcoming monograph on Bonifazio Veronese, co-authored with Philip Cottrell, which is available upon request.