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Pontormo, Pharaoh with his Butler and Baker

Key facts
Full title Pharaoh with his Butler and Baker
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 × 51.7 cm
Acquisition credit Bought with the aid of the Art Fund (Eugene Cremetti Fund), 1979
Inventory number NG6452
Location Room 10
Collection Main Collection
Pharaoh with his Butler and Baker

This is one of the panels that decorated Pierfrancesco Borgherini’s bedroom in his palace in Florence. They tell the Old Testament story of Joseph and were probably originally set into furniture. Five other panels from the series are also in the National Gallery.

Joseph was his father’s favourite son with a coat of many colours, but he was sold into slavery by his jealous half-brothers and taken to Egypt. Bought by Potiphar, the head of Pharaoh’s guard, Joseph became overseer of Potiphar’s household. However, when he refused the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife she falsely accused him of rape, and he was thrown into jail.

When in prison Joseph interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker, who had been imprisoned for offending him. Joseph foresaw that the butler would be reinstated but the baker would be hanged. Here the baker is taken from prison (top right) and led to execution (right), while the butler is shown descending the staircase and serving Pharaoh (bottom left).

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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.