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Pontormo, Joseph sold to Potiphar

Key facts
Full title Joseph sold to Potiphar
Artist Pontormo
Artist dates 1494 - 1556/7
Series Scenes from the Story of Joseph
Date made about 1515
Medium and support Oil on wood
Dimensions 61 × 51.6 cm
Acquisition credit Bought with the aid of the Art Fund (Eugene Cremetti Fund), 1979
Inventory number NG6451
Location Room 10
Collection Main Collection
Joseph sold to Potiphar

This picture formed part of the decoration of the bedroom of Pierfrancesco Borgherini in the Borgherini palace in Florence, and was commissioned to celebrate his marriage in 1515. The story is taken from the Old Testament (Genesis 39: 1). Joseph had been his father’s favourite son and was given a coat of many colours by him. His jealous half-brothers sold Joseph to a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants taking perfumes and spices to Egypt. The brothers smeared goat’s blood on Joseph’s coat and told their father that Joseph was dead.

This scene shows Joseph (the central young boy in yellow) standing before his new master, Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, to whom he has just been sold. The Ishmaelites are grappling for their payment on the left. One of them bends over, his back to the viewer and his head between his legs, to pick up a coin from the ground.

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Scenes from the Story of Joseph


These six pictures by Pontormo and Bacchiacca were part of a larger series of panel paintings commissioned to celebrate the marriage of Pierfrancesco Borgherini to Margherita Accaiuoli in 1515. The series decorated the couple’s bedroom in the Borgherini palace in Florence. Francesco Granacci and Andrea del Sarto also contributed to the decorative scheme, which would have been one of the most sumptuous of the time. The paintings, telling the story of Joseph from the Old Testament (Genesis 39), would have been set into the wall panelling and furniture.

Pontormo’s interest in the emerging new style known as Mannerism – a reaction against the harmony, proportion and naturalism of High Renaissance art – is evident in his bright colours, disconcertingly unnatural approach to space, elongated figures and spiralling compositions. Bacchiacca’s scenes are expressive and dramatic but stylistically more conventional.