Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Story of Joseph

Biagio d'Antonio (Italian, Florentine, active by 1472–died 1516)
Tempera on wood
27 x 59 in. (68.6 x 149.9 cm)
Credit Line:
The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 604
In a succession of episodes, marked with the names of the chief characters, the painting illustrates the story of Joseph (Genesis 37,39,42-27). In the background to the left is the sale of Joseph to Potiphar, Joseph fleeing from Potiphar's wife, and his imprisonment. In the foreground on the right is the dream of Pharoah and Joseph interpreting Pharoah's dream, and, on the left, Joseph greeting his father and kinsmen on their arrival in Egypt.

A companion panel (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) shows earlier episodes of the story, before Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. Both panels originally were engaged in the wainscoting of a bedroom, dating from about 1482.

This splendidly preserved panel is one of a pair illustrating the story of Joseph as recounted in Genesis 39–47. The companion is in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (see Additional Images, fig. 1). Both belonged to the principe Borghese in the nineteenth century and were there ascribed to the Umbrian artist Pintoricchio; however, in 1928 Berenson attributed the panels to Andrea Utili da Faenza (1481–1502), around whose name he grouped a number of panels. It is now firmly established that this group of works is, instead, by Biagio d'Antonio, a painter of some importance in Florence and Faenza in the last quarter of the fifteenth century and one who notably worked with Cosimo Rosselli decorating the walls of the Sistine Chapel in 1481–82 (on this, see Arnold Nesselrath, "The Painters of Lorenzo the Magnificent in the Chapel of Pope Sixtus IV in Rome," in The Fifteenth Century Frescoes in the Sistine Chapel: Recent Restorations of the Vatican Museums, vol. 4, 2002, pp. 57–59, 62). He established himself in Faenza in 1476 but continued to work for Florentine patrons and in October 1483 was commissioned together with Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Perugino to decorate the Sala dei Gigli in the Palazzo Vecchio—an important civic commission. The style of the Joseph panels is usually seen as related to Biagio’s work in the Sistine Chapel and dated soon after his involvement there, perhaps directly after his return to Florence (but see Bartoli 1999, who dates them to the 1490s). It is not known for whom the panels in the MMA and the Getty Museum were painted, but it is likely that they decorated a bedroom, as was the case with a famous cycle recounting the story of Joseph painted for the marriage of Pierfrancesco Borgherini and Margherita Accaiuoli in 1515. As noted by Krohn (2008), Joseph was celebrated as an exemplum of chastity in refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife, of constancy in his devotion to his family, and of clemency in his forgiveness of his brothers. These were virtues celebrated by Florentine patricians, with their strong allegiance to kinship. The ample dimensions and excellent state of preservation of the two panels attest to the fact that they were meant either to be placed over a daybed (a lettucio) or to be set into a wainscoting; they are not cassone panels, as had been widely thought prior to 1980.

To aid in following the narrative the names of the protagonists have been inscribed below them. The narrative runs from one panel to the other, with the earlier scenes concentrated in the Getty panel. That in the MMA depicts seven scenes, which are set within a carefully compartmentalized, architectural setting. An analogy with Ghiberti’s use of architecture in the Gates of Paradise on the Florentine Baptistery has been noted (Barriault 1985). In the upper left background, the young Joseph, whom his brothers, jealous of the love his father bore him, had sold into slavery, arrives in Egypt and is sold by the merchants (labeled mercatanti) to Potiphar, "one of Pharaoh’s eunuchs, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian" (Genesis 39:1). He is next seen fleeing Potiphar’s wife through the door of a palace within the city. She had attempted to seduce him and, finding herself rejected, accused him of attempted rape. The result was that Joseph was thrown into prison (39:19), which is shown to the right of the same building (the scene beneath the loggia belongs to a later episode). The narrative then moves to the foreground palace where, through a window, Pharaoh is shown having a perplexing dream, the substance of which is figured above him (41:1). Joseph had gained a reputation as an interpreter of dreams when in prison, and beneath the loggia Pharaoh listens to him interpret his dream as predicting seven years of plenty and seven of famine (41:14–36). Thereupon Joseph is put in charge of Pharaoh’s household. To the left of the palace he is shown mounted "in his viceroy’s chariot and men cried ‘Make way!’ before him" (41:43). In the right background, he stockpiles food during the years of plenty (41:49). Intervening stories are shown in the companion panel, including Joseph’s brothers setting out to Egypt to obtain food during the seven years of famine. They do not recognize Joseph, who takes this opportunity to force them to fetch their youngest brother, Benjamin, who was born after Joseph was sold into slavery. He then concocts a plot for keeping Benjamin with him by hiding a silver cup in the latter’s sack of grain. Beneath the loggia in the background palace Joseph embraces Benjamin, in front of whom is the open sack of grain with the cup Joseph accused his brothers of stealing (44:1–12). This became the catalyst for revealing his identity to his brothers and sending for his aged father Jacob, who "set out from Beersheba. Israel’s sons conveyed their father Jacob, their dependants, and their wives in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry them" (46:5). In the left foreground Jacob arrives in Egypt, to be met by Joseph, who "threw his arms round him and wept, and embraced him for a long time, weeping" (46:29).

It is clear from the complexity of the arrangement of the story, across the two panels and moving from background to foreground and back again, that the inscriptions were a necessary aid in identifying the protagonist as he matured. Reading the story also required a fair degree of familiarity since chronologically disconnected episodes are sometimes shown in the same space or building.

[Keith Christiansen 2012]
Inscription: Inscribed: (with names of those represented) GVSEPPO (repeatedly), JACOB, MERCATANTI, PVLTIFR, MOGLE DIPVLTIFR, FARAGON (Joseph, Jacob, merchants, Potiphar, Potiphar's wife, pharaoh); (on triumphal cart) ·IOS / EF·; (right) ·SONGO·DIFARAGONE (pharaoh's dream)
Galleria Borghese, Palazzo Borghese, Rome (by 1837–at least 1866; cat., 1859, no. 51, as by Pinturicchio); principe Borghese, Rome (until 1891; his anonymous sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, July 2–3, 1891, no. 126, as "Joseph à la cour Pharaon," by Pinturicchio for Fr 3,400); Jean Dollfus, Paris (until d. 1911; his estate sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, April 1–2, 1912, no. 52, as Florentine School, XV century, for Fr 41,500 to Wildenstein and Kleinberger); [Wildenstein, Paris and New York, and Kleinberger, Paris and New York, 1912–22, as by Giovanni Battista Utili da Faenza; sold for Fr 60,000 to Friedsam]; Michael Friedsam, New York (1922–d. 1931)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Michael Friedsam Collection," November 15, 1932–April 9, 1933, no catalogue.

Cincinnati. Taft Museum. "Art and Fashion of the Renaissance," October 4–November 30, 1946, no catalogue.

Richmond. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "Italian Art: Loss and Survival," October 15–November 16, 1947, no catalogue.

Little Rock. Arkansas Arts Center. "Five Centuries of European Painting," May 16–October 26, 1963, unnumbered cat. (p. 8).

Stamford, Conn. Stamford Museum and Nature Center. "Renaissance Paintings," May 2–17, 1964, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy," November 11, 2008–February 16, 2009, no. 138.

Fort Worth. Kimbell Art Museum. "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy," March 15–June 14, 2009, no. 138.

P. Rosa. Classificazione per epoca dei pittori di cui le opere nella Galleria Borghese. [ca. 1837] [Galleria Borghese, Rome; see Ref. Zeri and Gardner 1971], attributes this painting and the panel in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles [see Notes], to Pinturicchio.

P. Rosa. Catalogo della Galleria Borghese. [ca. 1854–59], no. 51 [Vatican archives; see Ref. Fredericksen 1972], attributes the MMA and Getty panels to Pinturicchio.

J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe and G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in Italy from the Second to the Fourteenth Century. Vol. 3, London, 1866, p. 295, as in the Galleria Borghese, Rome; describe the MMA and Getty panels as "part of a 'cassone,' hastily handled in the manner of Pinturicchio".

Ivan Lermolieff [Giovanni Morelli]. Kunstkritische Studien über italienische Malerei. Vol. 1, Die Galerien Borghese und Doria Panfili in Rom. Leipzig, 1890, p. 142 [English ed., London, 1900, p. 113–14], attributes MMA and Getty panels to the workshop of Pinturicchio, inferring that the artist may have been from Abruzzi.

Arsène Alexandre. "La collection de M. Jean Dollfus." Les arts 3 (January and February 1904), ill. p. 8, calls it a Florentine work of the fifteenth century.

Henri Frantz. "La curiosité: collections Jean Dollfus (tableaux anciens, objets d'art)." L'art décoratif 27 (May 5, 1912), p. 291, ill. p. 289, assigns it to the Florentine school and reports that it sold for 41,500 francs in the Dollfus sale.

S[amuel]. Rocheblave. Un grand collectionneur alsacien, Jean Dollfus (1823 à 1911). Strasbourg, 1912, p. 21, ill. p. 11.

Paul Schubring. Cassoni: Truhen und Truhenbilder der italienischen Frührenaissance. Leipzig, 1915, text vol., p. 302, no. 354; plate vol., pl. LXXIX, considers it a Florentine-Umbrian work of about 1480.

Bernard Berenson in The Michael Friedsam Collection. [completed 1928], pp. 82–83, attributes it to Utili da Faenza (Biagio d'Antonio), dates it soon after his work in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (1482), and notes the influence of Perugino; ascribes to the same hand a painting of Jason and Medea in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, and two more of the Story of Lucretia in the Ca' d'Oro, Venice.

Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 13, The Renaissance Painters of Florence in the 15th Century: The Third Generation. The Hague, 1931, p. 180, fig. 118, attributes it to Utili.

Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 585, lists it as a work by Utili.

Bryson Burroughs and Harry B. Wehle. "The Michael Friedsam Collection: Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 27, section 2 (November 1932), pp. 36–37, no. 60 , attribute it to Utili.

Lionello Venturi. Italian Paintings in America. Vol. 2, Fifteenth Century Renaissance. New York, 1933, unpaginated, under pl. 273, attributes the MMA and Getty panels to Benedetto Ghirlandaio.

Bernardo Berenson. "Tre disegni di Giovan Battista Utili da Faenza." Rivista d'arte 15 (1933), p. 29 n. 1, observes the similarity of the galloping horse to a drawing by the sculptor Francesco di Simone Ferrucci in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, suggesting that Utili and Francesco used the same material.

Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 504.

Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, p. 57, ill., calls it a cassone panel and tentatively attributes it Utili da Faenza, remarking that "he has possibly been confused with another painter, Biagio d'Antonio".

Hans-Werner Grohn. "Zwei Cassoni mit Darstellungen aus der Erzählung von Amor und Psyche." Staatliche Museen zu Berlin: Forschungen und Berichte 1 (1957), p. 94, erroneously as still in the Friedsam collection; rejects the attribution to Utili, ascribing it to the artist in the workshop of the Ghirlandaio brothers who painted the Story of Lucretia in the Ca' d'Oro, Venice.

Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Florentine School. London, 1963, vol. 1, pp. 211–12; vol. 2, pl. 1027 (detail), lists it with the works of "'Utili' (Biagio di Antonio?)".

Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School. New York, 1971, pp. 146–48, ill., attribute it to Biagio d'Antonio; date it about 1482, when Biagio worked in the Sistine Chapel in the company of Perugino and other Umbrian artists whose influence can be seen in this work.

Burton B. Fredericksen. Catalogue of the Paintings in the J. Paul Getty Museum. [Malibu], 1972, pp. 18–19 nn. 4–5, under no. 21, states that although the MMA and Getty panels form a compositional unity, they must have been separate, either as two sides of the same cassone or on two different but companion chests.

Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 28, 257, 607.

Everett Fahy. Some Followers of Domenico Ghirlandajo. PhD diss., Harvard University. New York, 1976, p. 207, calls it a cassone front.

Annarosa Garzelli. La Bibbia di Federico da Montefeltro: un'officina libraria fiorentina, 1476-1478. Rome, 1977, p. 105.

J. Russell Sale. Filippino Lippi's Strozzi Chapel in Santa Maria Novella. PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania. New York, 1979, p. 292 n. 80.

John Pope-Hennessy and Keith Christiansen. "Secular Painting in 15th-Century Tuscany: Birth Trays, Cassone Panels, and Portraits." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 38 (Summer 1980), pp. 16–17, 38, 40, figs. 34 (color), 35–36 (details), ill. opp. title page (color detail), consider it probable that the MMA and Getty panels "formed the decoration of a room above a wainscotting with a thin molding between them"; discuss Biagio's depiction of architecture.

Anne Brickey Barriault. "Florentine Paintings for Spalliere." PhD diss., University of Virginia, 1985, pp. 79–81, 266–67, no. 4, fig. 16, discusses the MMA and Getty panels as spalliere, noting that "their measurements, date, treatment of space and narrative argue" against the identification of them as cassoni; attributes them to Biagio and dates them after 1482 and discusses the influence of Ghiberti's bronze panels for the doors of the Florence baptistery.

Everett Fahy. "The Argonaut Master." Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 114 (December 1989), pp. 286–87, calls it a wainscot panel.

Anne B. Barriault. "Spalliera" Paintings of Renaissance Tuscany: Fables of Poets for Patrician Homes. University Park, Pa., 1994, pp. 64, 74, 121, 142, no. 2.2, fig. 2.2, find that the MMA and Getty panels "share conventions of format, scale and narrative type with images for 'spalliere'"; dates them after 1482, observing the influence of artists active with Biagio in the Sistine Chapel, particularly Perugino; notes that the continuity between the two works suggests that the narrative may have been painted on one long panel, perhaps set over a long credenza or lettuccio; reads the Joseph story as signifying the "triumphant perpetuation of the family," with a "special meaning for the decoration of a nuptial chamber and marriage bed".

Roberto Longhi. Il palazzo non finito: saggi inediti, 1910-1926. Ed. Francesco Frangi and Cristina Montagnani. Milan, 1995, pp. 271, 285, 293, 295 n. 37, p. 562, fig. 103, attributes it to Utili and dates it toward the last decade of the fifteenth century.

Marilena Caciorgna. "Da Eunosto di Tanagra a Giuseppe Ebreo: un dipinto del ciclo 'Piccolomini' a Washington." La Diana 1 (1995), pp. 246–47, pl. 79.

Graham Hughes. Renaissance Cassoni, Masterpieces of Early Italian Art: Painted Marriage Chests 1400–1550. Alfriston, England, 1997, pp. 165, 176, 231–32, calls it a cassone panel.

Roberta Bartoli. Biagio d'Antonio. Milan, 1999, pp. 163, 224–25, no. 107, ill. pp. 166–67 (color, overall and detail), calls it a spalliera panel and suggests dating it in the 1490s.

Deborah L. Krohn in Art and Love in Renaissance Italy. Ed. Andrea Bayer. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2008, pp. 65, 293, 298–99, no. 138, ill. (color).

James Grantham Turner in Art and Love in Renaissance Italy. Ed. Andrea Bayer. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2008, p. 181.

Andrea Bayer in Art and Love in Renaissance Italy. Ed. Andrea Bayer. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2008, p. 232.

Nicoletta Pons in Virtù d'amore: pittura nuziale nel Quattrocento fiorentino. Ed. Claudio Paolini et al. Exh. cat., Galleria dell'Accademia. Florence, 2010, pp. 128–29.

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