Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of Pharaoh

Attributed to Jörg Breu the Younger (German, Augsburg ca. 1510–1547 Augsburg)
ca. 1534–47
Distemper on linen
67 5/8 x 57 1/4 in. (171.8 x 145.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 643
This unfinished painting may have been conceived as part of a series devoted to the story of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph, who is seen here standing in a grand Renaissance palace, interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh (Genesis 41:14–36).
The materials and technique employed—a water-based medium on ungrounded fine-weave canvas, called by the German term Tüchlein—account for the picture’s subdued tonality and matte surface as well as its worn condition. Such Tüchlein offered a common lightweight and economical alternative to both large-scale panel paintings and tapestries, but their disadvantage was their susceptibility to deterioration and damage.
#2629. Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of Pharaoh
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The subject of this painting, which for many years was misunderstood or called uncertain, is a trio of episodes from the story of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph as told in Genesis. Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, then living in Canaan, was sold by his jealous brothers to Ishmaelite merchants destined for Egypt. Upon arrival in Eqypt, the merchants sold the youth to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, who eventually made him the overseer of his household. Potiphar’s wife became infatuated with Joseph and attempted to seduce him. He fled from her advances but, in his haste, left behind the cloak that she had grasped to draw him near. In revenge, she accused him of attempting to violate her, presenting Joseph’s cloak to Potiphar as evidence. Potiphar sent Joseph to prison, where he gained a reputation as an interpreter of dreams. Later, when Pharaoh was troubled by dreams whose meaning eluded his advisers, he learned of Joseph’s talent and summoned him from prison. Joseph foretold seven years of bountiful harvests followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh, grateful for the warning, made Joseph Egypt’s second-in-command and put him in charge of stocking up for the famine.

The main, foreground scene in the Museum’s painting represents Joseph interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh (Gen. 41:14–36). Joseph is the figure to the left of center, in profile, bareheaded with shoulder-length, curly brown hair. He wears a billowing white robe adorned with a flower motif. His gestures—left hand raised and right hand pointing—show him in the act of interpretation. Pharaoh, holding a scepter and wearing a crown (on his blue hat), leans far forward in his throne.

Two earlier episodes from the Joseph story appear in the background. In the arched window of the next building, Joseph is seen escaping Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:7–13). She is at the left, naked except for a white bonnet, and appears to be seated on a bed; the horizontal white streak across her belly must represent a sheet. She leans toward Joseph and clutches his blue cloak. He turns away and flees, holding his right hand to his shoulder, apparently in an attempt to secure the cloak.

Beneath the window, in the arched canopy before the entrance to the house, Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph (Gen. 39:16–19). The blue cloak from the previous scene is draped over a chair or stool and is being examined by a figure wearing a large blue hat similar to that of Pharaoh in the foreground, but without a crown. He is further distinguished from Pharaoh by his lack of a beard. This must be Potiphar. The figure with shoulder-length hair just to the right, shown from behind in yellowish costume, could well be Joseph, given that he is wearing yellow in the scene above and has a yellow sleeve in the foreground scene. The indistinct figure to the left, in the doorway, draped in a purplish robe, was most likely intended to be Potiphar’s wife.

Although Colvin (1877) correctly recognized the subject matter in 1877, the feminine appearance of Joseph’s garment in the main scene eventually stirred enough doubt to prompt a shift in the identification to the Justice of Trajan (Emperor Trajan and the Widow), a proposal that was later abandoned, leaving the question of subject unresolved for many years. The ornate robe that caused some scholars to suspect a female protagonist may simply allude to the "vestures of fine linen (Vulgate: stola byssina)" (Gen. 41:42) in which Pharaoh dressed Joseph as a reward for the dream interpretation. Moreover, the facial profile of this figure is clearly masculine. The scene of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in the background, which Colvin also noted and which confirms the subject beyond doubt, appears to have escaped the attention of later scholarship.

The Museum’s painting may well have been conceived as part of a series devoted to the story of Joseph, examples of which are known in a variety of media. The materials and technique employed here—a water-based medium on ungrounded fine-weave linen, now referred to by the German term Tüchlein—offered a lightweight and economical alternative to both panel paintings and tapestries. Such works on cloth were far more common than their scarcity at the present time would suggest. The disadvantage of Tüchlein paintings was their susceptibility to deterioration and damage.

Several motifs in this picture are traceable to print sources. The dog at the left was copied in reverse from Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut Knight on Horseback and Landsknecht. The guard just to the left of Joseph, shown from behind, combines elements from two Dürer prints. His pose follows, in mirror image, the figure at the right of Christ Carrying the Cross from the Large Passion series, though with the head turned away and one hand made to rest on the hip. The plume on his hat was taken from the corresponding figure in Ecce Homo, the preceding print in the same series. The figure in the immediate right foreground of the painting appears to have been modified in reverse from the striding candle bearer on the left of The Circumcision in Dürer’s Life of the Virgin series. The soldier to the right of Pharaoh in all’antica-style armor appears again, in the main aspects of pose and costume, in the foreground of a Netherlandish Crucifixion of about 1520 in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; both probably derive from a common, possibly North Italian, source. The composition and architectural setting may have been inspired by Italian engravings, such as the Judgment Hall of Pilate attributed to Baccio Baldini.

The foreground architecture and its classicizing ornament suggest that the Museum’s painting originated in southern Germany. Italianate motifs in German art of this period were not limited to the south, but they were especially prevalent there because of the early, intense interest shown by artists and patrons of Augsburg, which had strong economic ties to Venice. Certainly this work invites comparison with notable examples of classicizing tendencies in Augsburg painting, such as Jörg Breu the Elder’s Story of Lucretia and Hans Burgkmair the Elder’s Story of Esther, both completed in 1528. The first scholars to associate the MMA Tüchlein with an Augsburg artist were Tietze and Tietze-Conrat (1936), who rightly rejected the old attribution to Lucas van Leyden, which is untenable on stylistic grounds. They proposed an attribution to Jörg Breu the Younger based on similarities with his illustrations dated 1540–41 in a manuscript now at Eton College.

The recent publication of Breu’s complete printed oeuvre prompts closer consideration of the artist and lends new plausibility to Breu’s authorship of the Museum’s picture. A survey of his Riesenholzschnitte (monumental woodcuts) turns up several examples comparable in appearance to the Museum’s painting. Foremost among them are two scenes of Lazarus and the Rich Man which, with their perspectivally sound architecture and convincingly proportioned figures, display a grandeur and sophistication consonant with the style of the MMA work. Breu’s David and Bathsheba is another large woodcut that presents similarly solid figures set in a rationally constructed space; moreover, it makes use of a baldachin-like structure set before a palace that invites comparison with the arched canopy in the background of the painting. Additionally, in a Prodigal Son print, recently attributed to Breu, the broad, sturdy male faces have the same forceful presence as the most fully realized head in the Museum’s painting, that of the guard on the left edge.

If Breu was responsible for this Tüchlein, a date of about 1535 (after taking over management of the workshop from his father) to his death in 1547 is conceivable. Here it must be emphasized, though, that the painting’s unfinished state and damaged condition prevent a comprehensive stylistic analysis. In addition, comparative paintings by and attributed to Breu are scant. The conclusions offered here must therefore remain provisional.

[2013; adapted from Waterman 2013]
This painting is executed in pigments mixed in a water-soluble glue medium on a fine, plain-weave fabric with no ground preparation. The edges were roughly cut and the painting lined to fabric with an aqueous adhesive and attached to a wooden stretcher. Remnants of an original black-painted border are visible along the perimeter.
Because much of the painting was never fully finished, different stages of the painting process remain visible. A straightedge was used to draw the architecture and floor tiles, and the ruled lines were reinforced with black ink or paint. The balance of the composition was also drawn with a dry material and the lines reinforced with black paint. The forms were modeled in black and brown washes heightened with white, which can be seen in the unfinished figures of dogs in the foreground. Other areas where the undermodeling is visible include the face of the man seated on the throne, his robe (where there is also detailed drawing of a floral pattern), and the faces of the figures surrounding him. Some passages, primarily those painted with red, green and blue, have been brought to high level of finish. They include the garlands, canopy, red cloak of the man standing at lower right, red cloaks and tunics of the men standing at left, and green robe of the man standing with arms crossed in the group behind the throne. The costume of the man in armor at right and the green robe and red head scarf of the figure behind him, the blue hat of the seated man, his scepter, his necklaces, and the throne are also finished. Gold was used to accent highlights in the throne.
Water damage, discoloration of the fabric support, abrasion throughout the surface, and flake losses in areas where the paint is more thickly applied have diminished the appearance of this very delicate painting. Along the bottom and left side and at the top left corner the paint is damaged and the surface is severely stained. Those areas have been restored, using pastels in order to respect the matte surface. Despite its unfinished and damaged state, the painting can still be appreciated as a beautiful and rare example of the distemper-on-linen (tüchlein) technique.
[2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
Inscription: Inscribed: (right foreground, on sword sheath) MAR SVE·; (on breastplate) [ ]S· IN·SO; (on floor) [illegible]
Paul Methuen, Corsham Court, Chippenham, Wiltshire (by 1766–d. 1795); Paul Cobb Methuen, Corsham Court (1795–d. 1816); Paul Methuen, 1st Baron Methuen, Corsham Court (1816–d. 1849); Frederick Henry Paul Methuen, 2nd Baron Methuen, Corsham Court (1849–86); Henry G. Marquand, New York (1886–89)
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," 1877, no. 141 (as "Christ Before Pontius Pilate," by Lucas van Leyden, lent by Lord Methuen).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Exhibition of 1888–89," 1888–89, no. 6 (as "Christ before Pilate," by Lucas van Leyden).

[Thomas Martyn]. The English Connoisseur: Containing an Account of Whatever is Curious in Painting, Sculpture, &c. in the Palaces and Seats of the Nobility and Principal Gentry of England, Both in Town and Country. London, 1766, vol. 2, p. 36, lists as hanging over the chimney in the collection of Paul Methuen, Esq. at Grosvenor Street a painting of Our Saviour carried before Pontius Pilate, in watercolor, by Lucas [van] Leyden [the present work].

Sidney Colvin. "Fine Art: Exhibition of Old Masters at the Royal Academy . . ." The Academy: A Weekly Review of Literature, Science, and Art 11 (January 27, 1877), pp. 82–83, as by Lucas van Leyden; identifies the subject as the story of Joseph.

Pictures by Old Masters, Loan Collections and Recent Gifts to the Museum, the Henry G. Marquand Collection. New York, April–November 1897, p. 89, no. 293, calls this painting "Joseph's Coat" and claims that it is one of the few documented works by Lucas van Leyden; links it with a series of the Story of Joseph painted by Lucas in tempera on linen and recorded by Van Manden [sic for Karel van Mander] as having been seen in a house in Delft and damaged by the damp climate of Holland [see Ref. Bernath 1911].

Morton H. Bernath. "Concerning Lucas van Leyden." Burlington Magazine 18 (February 1911), pp. 295–96, attributes this painting to Lucas van Leyden and identifies the subject matter as Joseph's Coat; cites Sidney Colvin's opinion that this is one of Lucas' tempera paintings on linen described by Karel van Mander (in his "Schilderboek," 1603–4) as being in a brewer's house in Delft; believes our painting was part of a series of decorations illustrating the story of Joseph, and that copies of two of the original paintings were published by Lionel Cust (in "Notes on Pictures in the Royal Collections, XIX. Paintings Attributed to Lucas van Leyden," Burlington Magazine, vol. 18, December 1910, p. 151, as collection Hampton Court, London); calls one of these Hampton Court pictures, identified by him as the Death of Jacob, so close to ours that "the two compositions could very well be regarded as pendants" (see Cust, above, p. 151, pl. C).

B[ryson]. B[urroughs]. Letter to Dr. Burleigh Parkhurst. July 21, 1911 [according to handwritten notes in the EP Archive file], notes that this painting shows more Italian influence than any known work by Lucas van Leyden, and that certain stylistic reasons suggest it may be Swiss; dates it to about 1520; calls the title a misnomer and observes the scene is "perhaps the interpretation of a dream".

Bryson Burroughs. Catalogue of Paintings. 1st ed. New York, 1914, p. 164, as "Joseph Expounding Pharaoh's Dream (?)," attributed to Lucas van Leyden.

Erwin Panofsky. Letter to Harry B. Wehle. September 11, 1933, reports (and lends his support to) Karl von Tolnai and Lothar Freund's proposal that this picture represents the Tiburtine Sibyl Interpreting the Dream of the Senators, noting that renditions of the latter theme are strikingly similar to those of Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of Pharaoh; reads the inscription on the sword as "Mars Ultor," which was "meant to enliven the local colouring".

Campbell Dodgson. Letter to Margaretta Salinger. October 25, 1936, based on a faded photograph, is inclined to attribute this painting to Breu the Younger, an opinion corroborated by Tietze in a letter to him of 1935.

Hans Tietze and E. Tietze. "A Painting by Hans Breu the Younger." Burlington Magazine 69 (September 1936), pp. 134–35, ill. p. 132, attribute this picture to Breu the Younger, based on a comparison with his illuminated manuscripts in Eton College (1540–45; published by Campbell Dodgson, "Ein Minaturwerk Jörg Breus d. J.," Münchner Jahrbuch, vol. 11, 1934, pp. 191–210), observing that both show "the same exuberant architecture in a Renaissance style; the same imperfect understanding; the same courtly types and costumes; the same tendency to depth in space"; find the style of the MMA painting still close to that of Breu the Elder and date it to before 1534, when the Younger took charge of his father's workshop; remark that it may have been a decorative cloth panel intended to replace a more costly tapestry; further suggest that this painting may be a cartoon for a tapestry, noting that "most of the soldiers wear their swords on the wrong side as if the final work were to be in reverse".

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 225–27, ill., attribute this painting to Breu the Younger and interpret its subject as the legend of Trajan and the Widow, in which the widow pleads for justice following the killing of her son by Trajan's son; suggest that it is a sketch for a tapestry and find stylistic similarities with Breu the Younger's late woodcuts, such as the "History of the Chaste Susannah" and "Judith and Holofernes".

Gert von der Osten and Horst Vey. Painting and Sculpture in Germany and the Netherlands 1500 to 1600. Baltimore, 1969, p. 216, call it "The Widow in the Presence of the Emperor Trajan," by Jörg Breu the Younger, and note that it gives "some idea of the pompous decoration of the Renaissance and perhaps of the murals, now vanished, of the South German cities".

Laurence B. Kanter. Draft label copy. May 1979, comments that this painting must have been intended as a wall or facade decoration when Italianate ornament and design were popular in Southern Germany and Switzerland during the first half of the 16th century; notes that its draughtsmanship, perspective, and figure style are more sophisticated than known works by Breu the Younger; suggests the artist was associated with Burgkmair at Augsburg, since the latter's paintings and prints seem to be the source for all the peculiarly North Italian architectural forms and details in our painting; also finds similarities with woodcuts and drawings from the circle of Hans Holbein in Basel, especially with works by the Master IF (Johannes Franck?) and Ambrosius Holbein; based on the orientalizing costumes and headdresses and the arcane inscription on the carpet at the center, suggests it portrays an Old Testament subject.

Bernard Aikema and Andrew John Martin in Renaissance Venice and the North: Crosscurrents in the Time of Bellini, Dürer and Titian. Ed. Bernard Aikema and Beverly Louise Brown. Exh. cat., Palazzo Grassi. Milan, 1999, p. 333, ill. p. 334, calls this picture "The Judgment of Trajan (?)" by an anonymous German painter; notes that it "seems to derive from models of the Paduan school, such as the frescoes in the Scuola del Carmine, recently attributed to Gian Antonio Corona".

Karen E. Thomas in German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, p. 7.

Maryan W. Ainsworth in German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, p. 4.

Joshua Waterman in German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 29–33, 281–82, no. 4, ill. and fig. 28 (color, overall and detail).

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