Sexy Seductress: Potiphar’s Wife
The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife can be found in Genesis 39. At this point in Joseph’s story, he had been nearly killed and then sold into slavery by his brothers and had wound up in Egypt in Pharaoh’s, called Potiphar, household (more likely not the actual Pharaoh, but his second in command). Joseph found favor with Potiphar, who eventually put him in charge of his household. Potiphar had a diabolical wife who kept asking the much younger and handsome Joseph to sleep with her. He continually refused, saying that such a thing is detestable to God and how could he do that to Potiphar, who had given Joseph such great responsibility? One day, Potiphar grabbed Joseph’s robe and attempted once more to get him to sleep with her. Joseph ran out of Potiphar’s chamber, leaving his robe in her hands. When he was gone, she screamed and with his robe in her hands, her guards ran into her room. She accused Joseph of trying to sleep with her, and Potiphar threw Joseph into prison. She is a true seductress and perhaps more blatantly evil than Salome. A married woman, she attempted and desired to sleep with her husband’s trusted servant, culminating in an accusation of sexual assault that cost an innocent man his job, freedom, and respect for years.
We don’t know what Potiphar’s wife looked like or how old she was. Nevertheless, art history sees her as a sexy, perfect vision of youthful beauty used toward a sinful end. Artists often depicted Potiphar’s wide in classical nude beauty, much like Renaissance and Neoclassical representations of Venus. However, the wife’s expressions are more sly and she is often shown as a desperate seductress flinging her arms out and/or exposing her body out of lust for another rather than for it to be admired, something which Joseph declines to do. (There is a gallery of examples of this scene at the end of this post.)
Guercino’s Joseph & Potiphar’s Wife, now in the National Gallery in DC, showcases Potiphar’s wife as a beautiful woman with ill intentions. Naked, with her bust fully exposed, she reaches out to grab hold of Joseph’s face, perhaps to bring it in to kiss. Her other hand has a firm grip on the end of Joseph’s blue robe. Joseph stands shocked with one arm wrestling away her outreached arm and the other held out, gesturing for her to stop. Joseph’s eyes are even turned upward to stare at the ceiling rather than his Master’s wife’s naked body. The wife doesn’t seem the least bit perturbed by Joseph’s resistance.
I’ve always wondered why Potiphar’s wife continually tried to seduce Joseph. Did her husband have a mistress? Was she just a crazy (married) cougar? Even more curious are her evil actions after being spurned by Joseph – accusing him of assault.
Rembrandt painted his version of the accusation scene in 1655. Potiphar’s wife, richly dressed and innocently clutching her torn clothing to her chest, is in the spotlight. She points to Joseph and is captured in mid-sentence, looking up at Potiphar. Her husband offers a consoling hand on her shoulder and his eyes gaze past his wife to Joseph. His mouth is curled in an angry expression. Joseph stands in the darkness to the far left, his young, strong body pressed into itself in fear of the accusation. He seems helpless and forlorn. Indeed, he seems to realize that it is the powerful wife’s word against his – a lowly servant. (Rembrandt painted another version of this piece. You can see it in the gallery below.)
Although Potiphar’s wife was able to have innocent Joseph thrown into prison, he eventually rose up to power in Egypt. Nothing more is said of the married queen who tried to seduce him.
Side note: Richard Spear has a short book about Guercino’s two versions of this story, Seeing Double: Two Versions of Guercino’s Joseph & Potiphar’s Wife. I wasn’t able to find it, otherwise I would have referenced it in this post. I’m sure it’s excellent, though, because he’s a brilliant art historian. So, if you’re able to hunt it down, check it out!